Sciences Dean Recognized for His Contributions to Cancer Research, Mars Exploration

Dean Noureddine Melikechi Image by Edwin L. Aguirre

Dean Noureddine Melikechi’s pioneering research on using laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) to help diagnose ovarian cancer and analyze the surface composition of Mars has earned him the distinction of being elected fellow of the American Physical Society.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Kennedy College of Sciences Dean Noureddine Melikechi, who is also a physics professor, has been elected a fellow of the American Physical Society (APS), a nonprofit membership organization headquartered in College Park, Md., that represents more than 55,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories and industry in the United States and throughout the world.

According to the APS, the fellowship program recognizes members who have “made advances in physics through original research and publication, or made significant innovative contributions in the application of physics to science and technology.”

“I am humbled by this distinction. I am deeply honored to have been selected by my peers as one of this year’s 155 new fellows of this prestigious organization,” says Melikechi. “The selection is made special by the fact that each year, no more than one half of one percent of the society’s membership is elected to this status. It is a reflection of the work of many of my students and collaborators, and the guidance I received from my mentors over the years.”

Melikechi is being recognized for his “pioneering research leading to advancements in the use of lasers for diagnosing cancers, studying the geochemistry of Mars and for outstanding leadership in developing model programs and infrastructure to attract and engage diverse students into optical physics.”

Melikechi is an inventor and holder of 15 patents (12 issued and three under review). His inventions include a method that uses LEDs for curing dental resin materials, as well as novel ways of detecting heartbeats more sensitively than a traditional stethoscope and identifying early signs of jaundice in infants using a cellphone camera.

“I am very impressed with Prof. Melikechi’s energy, creativity and ability to continuously look for novel ways to solve big scientific and societal problems,” says A. Marjatta Lyyra, a professor of physics at Temple University in Philadelphia and a fellow of the APS Division of Laser Science who nominated Melikechi for the honor. “I personally know of Prof. Melikechi’s work on high-precision measurements, nonlinear optics, femtosecond laser dynamics, applied spectroscopy, laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy [LIBS] and multivariate analysis.”

According to Lyyra, Melikechi’s research has significantly impacted and influenced the development of many laser applications, including life sciences.

“Prof. Melikechi and his research group have developed a novel approach to fighting a major disease of our times: cancer. He has created and pioneered Tag-LIBS, a technique that allows for sensitive, accurate and precise detection and identification of cancer biomarkers in a single drop of blood. The initial results are focused on ovarian cancer, a silent disease that kills more than 20,000 women in the U.S. alone. In principle, this work can be generalized to other diseases and can be the foundation for the detection of many diseases in complex biomedical fluids, including serum, saliva and urine,” she says.

In addition, Melikechi has pioneered the development of photothermal laser spectroscopy (PTLS) for the study of biological macromolecules (molecules containing very large number of atoms) in liquids. “His laboratory is the first to propose the use of PTLS for the measurement of very small absorption coefficients and to show that PTLS is a powerful technique that can also be used to characterize complex biomedical samples with very high sensitivity,” says Lyyra.

Zapping Mars with Laser

“Prof. Melikechi is the finest, most well-rounded scientific academician that I know,” says Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, who is the principal investigator for the ChemCam instrument onboard NASA’s “Curiosity” Mars rover that is currently exploring the Red Planet.

NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars Image by NASA/JPL

Melikechi has been involved with analyzing LIBS data from the ChemCam instrument, which is shown here mounted on the main mast of NASA’s 1-ton Mars rover named “Curiosity.”

Melikechi has been involved with ChemCam’s data analysis since the 1-ton robotic rover landed in August 2012. ChemCam uses the LIBS technique to analyze the surface composition of Mars by firing intense pulses of laser on distant rocks, boulders or sediments. The resulting flash of light is picked up by ChemCam, which identifies the different chemical elements present in the target rock, and the data is transmitted to Earth for analysis.

“Prof. Melikechi participated in the calibration of LIBS elemental abundances on the Martian surface. He also pioneered a method for benchmarking the quality of the LIBS calibration of elemental compositions as a function of distance from the rover,” notes Wiens.

Melikechi’s contributions to the analysis of LIBS data acquired by Curiosity, formally known as the Mars Science Laboratory, has led to a number of publications in peer-reviewed journals, including Science, Spectrochimica Acta Part B, Applied Spectroscopy, Icarus and others.

Melikechi has been selected as a science team member for the SuperCam laser remote-sensing instrument aboard NASA’s next robotic Mars rover mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2020.