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The ICTP Winter College workshop a success

April 2017 Number 111

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The ICTP Winter College workshop a success

Advanced optical techniques for bioimaging was the subject for the 2017 workshop.

Portable mobile phone microscopes, demonstration with different prototypes at the lecture room by Zacharias Ballard, UCLA, USA.

The first Winter College in Optics took place in 1993 under the agreement between the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) and ICO. That first college, co-directed by Anna Consortini and Chris Dainty and with local organization by Gallieno Denardo, was dedicated to optical systems. It had as well a practical training component, with laboratories in optical information processing, Fourier optics and related topics. Since then, there has always been some exposure to practical training in addition to lectures, but in 2017, for the first time, the experimental activities were fully integrated as a major part of the College, as an experiment in itself.

The Winter College in Optics: “Advanced Optical techniques for Bio-imaging”, held in February 2017 at the ICTP, Trieste, Italy, addressed fundamental and experimental aspects of advanced techniques in microscopy, spectroscopy, laser speckle and other related optical methods. This year, the College was attended by 75 participants from 26 countries, 20 lecturers and 10 tutors. As a tradition, short seminars on current research interests were delivered by some of the young researchers coming from various parts of the world, in particular from Africa, Latin America and Asia. The majority of participants, however, presented their work in a couple of lively poster sessions that allowed peer-to-peer feedback as well as cultivating ideas for collaboration.

Participants at the surface plasmon resonance laboratory. Organized by Vyktor Lisyuk (not in the picture).

Students and professors at the experimental sessions.

Hosting a College on fundamentals and applied optical techniques for bio-imaging was an opportunity for participants to experience a broad exposure to number of important and representative bio-imaging optical methods over the course of two weeks, combining theory, experimental sessions and computer simulations. The laboratory sessions complemented the lectures on fundamentals and applications, allowing participants at one level to get a better physical insight by doing the measurements (this cannot be over-emphasized), analysis and discussion related to each technique, and at another level to actually perform measurements on samples brought by them to the College.

The hands-on work was designed to cover a wide range of bio-imaging techniques with foundations in microscopy, spectroscopy, laser speckle, and super-resolution. This part of the course started with the basics of optics of light microscopy and image processing, progressing to methods of imaging fluorescent samples, polarization microscopy, thermal characterization, and finally to aspects of super-resolution techniques.

In all, 16 experiments were conducted during the training sessions – most paired to lectures given by international experts, specifically related to photothermal microscopy, a surface plasmon resonance method for precise detection of low-concentration solutions, optical tweezers, multispectral spectroscopy analysis, lock-in photothermal shadowgraph methods, polarization microscopy, laser speckle bio-imaging, portable mobile-phone microscopes, determination of the optical properties of thin films and the influence of the substrate and materials, UV-Vis optical fibre-assisted spectroscopy in thin films and solutions.

Spectroscopy laboratory demonstrations.
Left: Nicoleta Tosa.

Besides giving hands-on understanding of the physical principles in optical imaging and theoretical background, the College offered the students additional information and experience in a number of interesting and relevant applications, for instance, in environmental science (e.g. studying soil pollution by noble metals and also water pollution using thermal lens spectroscopy method) and material characterization (by shadowgraph method). One of the overarching themes was that the equipment used was in absolute terms “low cost” and could be affordable in nearly any laboratory in the world. In this context, a number of participants – including those from least-developed countries – gained some ideas for research projects that they could begin at home, together with contacts and possible collaborators. Others, from relatively well equipped laboratories, found ideas for demonstrations they could set up in their own institutions.

Finally, there was one aspect of the College that has been its particular hallmark since its beginnings in 1993: participants and lecturers come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures from nearly all continents – notably without there being a majority of any nationality present – and all with the same focus on optics. That situation is almost unique to the Winter College on Optics at ICTP and provides an interesting environment in which the passion for science presides over all other categories for identifying individuals. Another interesting aspect of this is that participants—especially through the poster sessions—can appreciate how local needs combined with universal scientific training lead to locally-relevant innovation. Such innovation is at the very core of capacity building and therefore the future may see specific attention to entrepreneurship and professional development coming to subsequent colleges, and of course many more experiments.

More information can be found at

Humberto Cabrera, Maria L Calvo and Joe Niemela.