It was while he was in his last year as a student at Pisa University that Marco Borghesi became interested in plasma physics, the subject that has dominated his life ever since.
He says, "For my final year I had to pick a research project. Some friends of mine were doing a project in a laser plasma lab. I liked what I heard, I liked the people, I liked the laboratory. I know it might sound a bit random but that's the way it began and I've stayed in this field."
After Pisa, he moved to the UK where he obtained a PhD at Imperial College London and then a vacancy came up as a lecturer at Queen's. "That was in 1999 and I was lucky enough to get it."
In the years since then, his work and influence have developed. On behalf of Queen's he is leading a research team involving several other UK universities, including Imperial College, Strathclyde, Surrey, Birmingham and Southampton. The four-year project has been funded by EPSRC and it explores how to develop the technique of laser acceleration for a wide range of applications. But the project team is interested in particular in how ions accelerated by lasers can be used in medicine, especially in cancer therapy.
"It's quite an ambitious project but it's very important," Marco says. "Proton therapy is an approach which is emerging. Protons have a different way of interacting with matter. They stop in the cancer area and don't deposit any energy beyond that.
"But to apply this technique requires huge installations, which are very costly and there are only a few of them around the world. Using lasers for accelerating ions is an alternative which may lead in the future to a reduction of costs and would be of benefit to the next generation of treatment centres.
"The advantage of using laser accelerators is that everything is much more compact. If in 20 years' time laser sources can be used for treating patients that would be fantastic. But it is a long journey. The immediate future, the next step, is to increase acceleration and the quality of the ion beams."
Marco praises the facilities which are being used in the project, "including the laser facility here at Queen's which, for a university, is one of the largest around."
He adds: "There is competition. It is a very active field. Our research is quite applied. We enjoy doing fundamental science, publishing papers, but in the end it would be wonderful if we could produce something that is going to be of great benefit to society."
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