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Faculty profile: Scott Carney

Beckman faculty member Scott Carney is a Renaissance man: scientist, professor, weightlifter, and bicycle enthusiast.

Published on May 23, 2007

Physics and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

In many of his research projects at the Beckman Institute Scott Carney is the one who, as he puts it, “does the long division” i.e., the equations that collaborators turn into software for powering applications such as new imaging technologies.

When he’s not doing the math or spending time with his family, Carney is usually involved in a lifestyle that can only be described as highly active. He has taken home prizes from weightlifting and strongman contests, ridden his motorcycle all over the lower 48 states, and is, to put it mildly, a bicycle enthusiast. For Carney, bicycles flip a psychic switch: working on them means going from theoretician to engineer while riding them is a form of meditation.

“At work I’m a theorist but at home I’m an experimenter,” he said. “I’ve got the bike shop at home and do my own maintenance and build my own wheels. It’s sort of the ultimate engineer’s hobby because it’s essentially like building very small suspension bridges.”

Then there’s the riding itself.

“For me it’s a great time to just think,” Carney said. “I decompress and leave my work behind. I’m an academic, so it’s not like my life is really stressful, but it’s still pretty intense at times. So I leave this intense environment and I’ve got 10 or 15 minutes of pedaling and sort of running that out of my system before I get home to my wife and my son.”

Carney is a full-time member of Beckman’s Bioimaging Science and Technology group and director of the Optical Science group who focuses on the mathematical physics that undergird small-scale imaging and microscopy. His research includes pioneering work that demonstrated for the first time inverse light scattering for near field microscopy.

“What I do is figure out how to take measurements and turn them into usable representations,” Carney said. “The way I do that is by understanding the physics of the measurement taking process.”

A recent collaboration between Carney and Beckman colleagues Stephen Boppart, Dan Marks, and Tyler Ralston resulted in the development of a new imaging technique for optical microscopy that can generate sharp 3-D images from blurry, out-of-focus data. The technique, called Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Microscopy (ISAM), could mark a sea change for traditional optical microscopy with its non-invasive, high-speed, cross-sectional imaging capability.

Carney is excited about the potential of the technique, but is also pleased that its genesis was in a graduate level physical optics class he was teaching. Ralston, who was in Boppart’s group at the time, was taking the class.

“One of the things that I’m very proud of in that class is that I require students to do a project, and my standard for success is that it they do something that is publishable,” Carney said. “It doesn’t have to be published, but I should look at it and say ‘yeah we could turn that into a paper.’ So Tyler really reached out for that standard and achieved it. It was his student project that semester that was the beginning of ISAM.”

Carney, who has won outstanding teacher awards in addition to his research accomplishments, said he was trained as a physicist but thinks of himself as an engineer.

“I’m really a theoretical physicist,” Carney said. “I like to say that today’s engineering is yesterday’s physics. Engineering research is just taking what were once considered the cutting-edge results of the natural sciences and finding applications for them.”

Carney does find a place for engineering when it comes to bicycling, and not just in his shop.

“Of course I do it because I enjoy it, but I recommend it, especially to our students because it’s the right engineering solution,” he said. “If you simply look at the costs to yourself and to society at large of operating a motorcycle or car or truck or SUV, everyday, to travel two miles to work, it’s insane. Whereas the bicycle is the proportionate response, it’s the right thing, it’s the flyswatter to kill the fly.”

For Carney, that even applies during the harshest winter weather. He rode his bike into work the week a blizzard went through the area in February.

“Most sane people stop riding when there is six inches of snow on the road but I just get out the mountain bike with the big knobby tires,” Carney said.

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