Michael W. Berns, Institute Founding Director

Dear Friends,

It is with a heavy heart that I share that our Founding Director Dr. Michael Berns, UCI Distinguished Professor of Surgery and Biomedical Engineering and the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Endowed Chair in Laser Biomedicine, passed away on Saturday, August 13.

Shortly after joining UCI, Dr. Berns became the chair of Developmental and Cell Biology. Although a cell biologist by training, he was keenly aware that modern biological discoveries would be increasingly reliant on technological solutions. When Dr. Arnold Beckman visited Dr. Berns’ lab on a rainy morning four decades ago, he was fascinated by Dr. Berns’ research on laser microscopy and immediately recognized the potential. His endowment led to the creation of the world-renowned UCI Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic for which Dr. Berns served as Founding Director.

The architectural design of the Institute speaks to Dr. Berns’ ability to look decades into the future. The Institute was one of just a few in the world to combine a medical clinic with basic molecular biology, biophotonics and engineering – all in the same building. His vision was to pioneer technologies in laboratories, for the devices to evolve to meet healthcare needs and ultimately wheeled down the hallway to treat patients in the clinic. The idea was successful as evidenced by a continuous stream of innovative photonic technologies developed and clinically refined at the Institute. Many of these technologies were commercialized, benefiting patients worldwide and have become the standard-of-care.

The Institute was further designed to host visiting scientists for the dissemination of these technologies – a philosophy that led to the launch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) P41 Laser Microbeam Program. For decades, the program was a beacon of UCI with scientists traveling from around the world to secure residencies at the Institute.

Since a great deal of his research was in engineering – and a bioengineering department did not exist at UCI – Dr. Berns, together with former Director Dr. Bruce Tromberg and Dr. Steve George, had a vision to create the department. In 1998, they applied for the Whitaker Foundation Development Award, which seeded many bioengineering/biomedical engineering departments nationwide. While easily the least developed program at the time, this group of enthusiasts shocked the biomedical engineering community by winning the award. Dr. Berns, as the Principal Investigator on the proposal, along with the research infrastructure that he built at the Institute were instrumental in persuading the reviewers.

In addition, Dr. Berns held an adjunct appointment at UC San Diego where he worked with outstanding scientists, including Bioengineering Founding Father, Dr. Shu Chien, and Nobel laureate Dr. Roger Tsien. Dr. Berns’ scientific achievements were highly impactful and did not slow throughout his career. His work has been cited over 26,000 times, spanning the fields of developmental biology, DNA repair, mechanobiology, the cytoskeleton, fertility, preservation of endangered species and immunology – just to name a few.

Dr. Berns was a supportive mentor, providing guidance and training to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering Director Dr. Tromberg, as well as several UCI professors, including Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professor and Chair Dr. Vasan Venugopalan, Biomedical Engineering and Surgery Dr. Elliot Botvinick and Biomedical Engineering Professor Dr. Daryl Preece.

Dr. Berns was beloved. He artfully blended strong leadership with kindness, care and generosity towards budding scientists, of all ages. He will be dearly missed.

Warm Regards,

Thomas E. Milner, Ph.D.
Professor, Surgery and Biomedical Engineering

Click here to donate in support of the Michael W. Berns Biomedical Engineering Scholarship Fund.