April 20, 2022

After finals week her junior year at Arizona State University, Ana Staletovic received an interesting email from her physics professor, Bill Graves.

“The subject line was ‘Internship opportunity?’” Staletovic says. “And he said in the email, ‘You probably already have plans, but we are looking for a project manager intern.’”

Graves was offering her the chance to get involved with the creation of the world’s first compact X-ray free electron laser, or CXFEL for short, at ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

Staletovic had never heard of the CXFEL, so she did some research. She learned that the instrument will create images using X-rays, much like a conventional X-ray that shows your doctor a picture of the inside of your body. But the CXFEL will generate X-rays a billion times brighter than conventional ones, in pulses short enough to take snapshots of molecules in action before any damage sets in.

These damage-free pictures will help researchers explore the structure and dynamics of nature and materials as never before. For example, the CXFEL could increase our understanding of how drugs — like anti-cancer drugs — bind to cells in our bodies. This would help scientists develop more effective therapies with fewer side effects.

And it will do this at a fraction of the size — and cost — of existing X-ray free electron lasers.

The internship would give Staletovic, an engineering management major, experience in project management on a major feat of engineering. But the position was attractive to her for personal reasons, as well.

“When I read up on it, I saw that it was going to help with cancer-binding drugs. During that time, my aunt was in hospice care after being diagnosed with cancer years earlier, and she passed away shortly after I got the position. That aspect of the project really touched my heart,” Staletovic says

ASU’s CXFEL program is led by Robert Kaindl, director of the CXFEL Labs and a professor of physics. Staletovic’s instructor, Associate Professor Bill Graves, is currently guiding development of the instrument’s compact X-ray light source (CXLS), along with CXLS/CXFEL Deputy Director Mark Holl. The CXLS will allow for phase-contrast medical imaging for examining soft tissues, like cancer biopsies. It will be finished later this year.

“CXLS/CXFEL provides opportunities for undergraduates, graduate students, staff and faculty to expand their knowledge in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary ways,” says Holl. “It is remarkable to see the expanding skill sets and knowledge base of all students involved in the program, and to participate in their supervision and mentorship.”

Over the past five years, the CXFEL program has provided 28 students like Staletovic the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with cutting-edge technology.

“It's amazing to take some concept that was a homework problem in a textbook, and actually use it in the lab to make a scientific advance or measure the properties of an electron beam or laser. That jump from book learning to real-life science is an eye-opener,” Graves says.

Ana Steletovic stands in front of a desert landscape

Ana Staletovic is a project management intern at the CXFEL Labs. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Staletovic’s supervisor is project manager David Winkel. They work on everything from risk assessment, to scheduling, to budgeting.

“Every day is different, but we generally do all the numbers behind the project. It's just breaking everything down to make sure it goes more smoothly,” Staletovic says.

“The most exciting thing so far was when everything was sent in for the initial National Science Foundation walk-through, because we just had bricks on our shoulders. I would walk home from class or the library, pass by the Biodesign building and see people's office lights on. They were still working at 10 o'clock at night leading up to the visit to make sure everything was done,” she adds.

Despite the workload, the faculty and staff in CXFEL understand student priorities.

“They know that our first priority is always school, and everyone on the team is really good about that. So this internship is like a cherry on top of my schoolwork,” Staletovic says.

When Staletovic isn’t working on the project or her schoolwork, she likes to go golfing with her friends.

“I will purposefully leave my phone at home so I can be unplugged. It’s a great way to destress,” she says.

Trixia Dela Rosa and Antonella Semaan joined the CXFEL Labs in July 2020 to work as undergraduate researchers on the X-ray phase contrast medical imaging portion of the project. Although they had different majors, interests and backgrounds, they now work closely together as a team.

Trixia Dela Rosa stands in front of desert landscape.

Trixia Dela Rosa is an undergraduate researcher at ASU’s CXFEL Labs. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Dela Rosa moved to Arizona from the Philippines at age 2 and is now a senior at ASU earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering through a 4+1 program.

She is also the lead singer and rhythm guitarist in her band, Ruby Shore.

“My STEM side and my creative side are way more interconnected than you would imagine. I get to exercise my creativity in both. I’m really busy all the time, but it’s really fun,” Dela Rosa says.

At the CXFEL Labs, Dela Rosa and Semaan support a variety of different activities.

“We do different projects with different people every day. We’re working without actual X-rays right now in the CXLS phase, so we’re running simulations to anticipate what it will be like working with X-rays,” Dela Rosa says.

One day, she might work on calculations in programs like Matlab and Python to ensure that sufficient light will reach the camera at different distances in the CXLS, allowing for biological movies to be captured.

“Another day, Antonella and I will go to somebody else's workstation and say, ‘Hey! What are you working on?’ Suddenly they’ll be teaching us how to make cables,” Dela Rosa says.

“CXFEL is definitely helping me develop my technical skills, whether it’s working more in Matlab or even just talking shop with the other engineers. I’ve had a lot of exciting moments when we solved problems, but I think the people are the most exciting part of the job. I just love talking to everyone in the lab,” she adds.

Antonella Semaan stands in front of desert landscape.

Antonella Semaan is an ASU alum who volunteers in ASU’s CXFEL Labs. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Semaan graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s degree in biophysics last May, but she has continued working on CXFEL as a volunteer. She plans to continue until she starts medical school.

“My interest in the medical field is related to physics because I would like to either go into radiology or radiation oncology,” Semaan says. “Working on CXFEL is helping me learn a lot of technical skills that I'm not going to see in medical school — I get the physical and technical perspective of an application to medicine.”

Semaan is originally from Argentina and has lived in the U.S. for 12 years. She also has three children — each born in a different country, a fact that Semaan loves to tell everyone she meets.

“In my free time, I like to do things with my kids and spend time with my animals and plants,” says Semaan, who recently adopted a parakeet. “I get a lot of enjoyment out of telling people that I’m a plant lady with a bird now.”

While Dela Rosa focuses on the programming side of things, Semaan looks at the theoretical physics behind their experimental setups.

“We complement each other, so we make a very good team,” Semaan says. “We are always talking to the other students too, so we get to know what everyone else is doing rather than just staying in this one room and talking to ourselves.”

As the project moves forward, the work of the students will change, allowing them to learn even more technical skills relevant for their future careers.

“This is such a novel project — the first CXFEL in the world! It’s just so impressive,” Dela Rosa says.

“I think the imaging capabilities and the movies of these biological processes that are going to be able to be obtained have a lot of value and multiple applications to different industries,” Semaan adds. “The only linear accelerators in the world are miles long, so to have something that's only 30 feet across is mind-blowing.”

Get involved with CXFEL.

In 2020, a Major Research Instrumentation grant from the National Science Foundation was awarded to fund an advanced laser system for tunable laser excitation of biomolecules and other materials in time-resolved X-ray studies with the CXLS. In 2019, the CXFEL team received a $4.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a comprehensive design study of CXFEL. Leo and Annette Beus made a generous $10 million donation in 2018 to create the Beus CXFEL Laboratory and enable the construction of the CXLS femtosecond X-ray source. Both funders have made an enormous impact on advancing the project itself, but also allowed students like Staletovic, Dela Rosa and Semaan to gain hands-on experience.

Written by Elise Lange

Top photo caption: Antonella Semaan and Trixia Dela Rosa work on calculations to advance the compact X-ray light source being developed at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU