New Hire Profile: Curtis Johnson

Curtis Johnson was a Beckman graduate fellow and earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in June 2013. Now he works as a research scientist at the Biomedical Imaging Center (BIC).

Curtis Johnson was a great Beckman graduate fellow. He was so great that when he received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in mechanical engineering in June, he got a job in July—at Beckman. After working for six years under Beckman researchers John Georgiadis and Brad Sutton, he became well-versed in not only mechanical engineering, but also magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and, more specifically, magnetic resonance elastography (MRE). With this expertise, he was able to land a position as research scientist in the Biomedical Imaging Center (BIC).

“I was a long-time user of the BIC as an MRI engineer, and my graduate fellowship was a natural extension of that,” Johnson said. “I have always felt part of the family here, so when I graduated, the opportunity came along at Beckman to continue what I was working on, but also help with other projects that as a user, I wasn’t necessarily involved in. It’s a great position, and I’m really excited.”

One of the groundbreaking projects Johnson will be working on is research in MRE, which is a noninvasive medical imaging technique that measures the mechanical properties, such as stiffness, of soft tissues using MRI. Knowing the stiffness of tissues can lead to more accurate diagnosis and care of many diseases, as pathological tissues are often harder or softer than the surrounding normal tissue. Currently, MRE is being used in liver imaging in the medical field and is being done with a high degree of accuracy so that it is now replacing biopsies.

“It’s pretty revolutionary that biopsies, a tried and true method for testing the liver, are being replaced by MRE,” Johnson said. “Because of this success, we’re looking at diseases of the brain now, including tumors. Knowing how stiff brain tumors are before surgery can improve outcomes and ensure the surgery is as noninvasive and short as possible. Brain tumors will take less time to remove if doctors know it’s a softer tissue before they start surgery. Otherwise, they have to plan for a harder tumor, and the surgery may be unnecessarily long or invasive.”

The MRE scan to test for brain tumors is much like an MRI, but instead of the patient lying completely still (a requirement of most MRIs), researchers actually shake the patient’s brain.

“The movement is totally controlled and synchronized. If you move but we know how you’re moving, we can measure that. Through this motion measurement, we can then calculate tissue stiffness,” Johnson said.

This advanced research is possible thanks to the expertise and resources available at Beckman.

“My research leveraged the resources and expertise we have here at Beckman for creating really high-quality images very quickly. In doing that, we were able to create a technique that is really cutting-edge for the field,” Johnson said. “Many sites don’t have the expertise or resources that we do, and, with that, we’re able to develop new approaches so that we can in turn collaborate with researchers throughout the world. What I’m doing as an extension of this research is moving this process from the lab to something that everyone can use, like making the software easy to use, testing on complex populations, and looking for different diseases.”

MRE is a function of the MRI, which is a tool to accomplish many different tasks for a variety of experiments, Johnson said. He will be working with the MRI to create many different scans, like MRE.

“We set up protocols, so if a researcher comes to us to do new research, we help solve his or her problems initially and along the way. People can come to us with all sorts of propositions, and we write code to make that happen,” Johnson said. “The physics of MRI allow for a lot of flexibility. In the scope of MRI, there are a number of different contrast agents. We write code for pulse sequences that make the scanner do different scans to see various parts of the brain and the body. The beauty of MRIs is that scientists can walk in and say, ‘Can I do this?’ or ‘Can I measure this?’ and it won’t be a crazy question or an impossible task. We say ‘Yeah, sure. We can probably figure that out.’ Someone just needs to ask the question.”

Tackling these projects will be Johnson’s main objective in his new job, and he is up for the challenge.

“It’s exciting because I’ve always been part of the team, yet it’s really different. Despite the fact that I’ve been here a long time, there’s new stuff I’m encountering already that I get to be involved in. I like being involved in a wide range of projects,” Johnson said.

This article is part of the Summer 2013 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.