Founder's Column
by Michael W. Berns,
Ph.D., Co-Founder

From the Beginning

I first met Dr. Beckman on a rainy day in December 1980. He was one of a handful of Orange Country CEOs who came to a laboratory open house that I was having to celebrate the opening of the Laser Microbeam Program (LAMP) funded by the National Institutes of Health. This was a facility that I had built in the Steinhaus Hall on the UCI campus for the purpose of providing new state-of-the-art laser microbeam technology to the scientific community.

What impressed AOB the most was the fine precision with which we could manipulate organelles (in this case, chromosomes) with a focused laser beam. He remarked many times over the years that the combination of lasers with microscopes seemed to him to have a lot of "potential" for a wide variety of research areas - and this looked like it was truly on the "cutting edge."

Dr. Beckman with laser in hand at BLI.

After that first meeting, which definitely seemed to create some chemistry between us, a long and rewarding professional and personal relationship developed between the two of us. Particularly smitten by the fine precision of the laser microbeam (after all, AOB was a world's expert in bio-instrumentation development), he and I had several meetings over the next two years. He became more and more interested in this technology and wanted to support its further development in some way. I suggested that we build a "Laser Institute" on the UCI campus. However, his unwillingness to make substantial charitable donations to the University of California because, as he put it, "I already pay my taxes," presented a tremendous hurdle. So to the creative "drawing board" we went.

The solution was to establish a separate, non-profit corportation that would build and own a building (Beckman Laser Institute) on the UCI campus. The building would then be leased to UCI, and if all went well (i.e., both UCI and the BLI corporation obeyed the terms of the agreements), the building would become the property of the university in thirty years. Such an agreement between UCI and a separate private entity was groundbreaking as no such partmership like this had been entered into before. But the founding Chancellor of UCI, Dan Aldrich, recognized the potential payoff of such an arrangement, and he was a close and trusting friend of Arnold O. Beckman. I remember the day very vividly when Dr. Beckman presented the $2.5 million matching check to Dan Aldrich in his office. These two men (both of whom were well over six feet tall) represented the best of both the business and academic worlds. They both knew that the arrangement was "risky," but they both had such enormous trust in each other that they felt there was a high probability that the venture would prove successful and perhaps even be a model for future private-public partnerships.

So how has the "laser microbeam" that first fascinated Dr. Beckman almost 25 years ago fared with time? This is a relevant question because the "laser microbeam" has morphed into a system that is about to make its debut as an international "star" or, perhaps more modestly, a technology that will be accessible to researchers from anywhere in the world where there is an internet hook-up.

The Robolase microscope is interfaced with other guest-users (UC campuses/Beckman Centers) via the Internet. It allows for multiple collaborators to work on a single experiment from different centers around the world.

"RoboLase," as we call it, is a fully capable laser microscope that cna be operated via a control panel on any standard desktop or lap top computer. Although there are still some bugs to be worked out, proof-of-principle experiments have already been carried out from the East coast of the United States to as far away as Brisbane, Australia, with our collaborator Prof. Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop. Once fully operational, RoboLase will allow either individual or multiple collaborators to conduct experiments on a sophisticated laser microscope that basically would be too expensive or complex from them to have in their own labs. RoboLase will also afford a unique opportunity for students at all levels to train on this new technology. It is not surprising that the major achievements of the RoboLase system have been due to the dedicated and "consumptive" effort of Dr. Elliot Botvinick, whose work was been supported through the Beckman Fellows program of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.

The unique microscope technology that first interested Dr. Beckman is about to go "virtual" in a way that neither he nor I could possibly have imagined 25 years ago. One of the keys to Arnold Beckman's success was his willingness to take chances on new endeavors that may have semed risky to an ordinary person. All of us at the Beckman Laser Institute need to be cognizant of the fact that without Arnold Beckman's wisdom and foresight, the Institute would not exist and none of us would be where we are today.