With Peggy and his family by his side, Bern has spent his scientific career as a physical chemist and laser spectroscopist. Although lasers are widely used now, that was not always the case. When Bern started using lasers in the 1980’s, they were viewed as more of an academic toy for exploration. At that time, no one had a grasp of the variety of uses. Today lasers are widely used in a variety of applications including laser printers, barcode scanners, DNA sequencing, semiconducting chip manufacturing, laser surgery and skin treatments.
Bern’s efforts in laser spectroscopy are focused on understanding how DNA interacts with ultraviolet light and studying melanin (a ubiquitous pigment found in skin, hair, and eyes). Because the current structure of melanin is unknown, much of Bern’s work focuses on identifying its properties. Melanin in the brain is known as neuromelanin, and the lack of it is thought to play a role in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. Identifying the structure of melanin could help lead to new treatments or cures for skin cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.
Melanin is a ubiquitous material also found outside the human body, in the biosphere at large. Because it is a green, renewable material that absorbs all wavelengths of light, melanin may inspire new ways to produce clean energy from sunlight.