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New campus strategic initiative on imaging has far-reaching goals

A new effort at the University of Illinois called the Strategic Initiative on Imaging seeks to bring together researchers from the Beckman Institute and other parts of campus to help make Illinois a national leader in imaging. Beckman faculty member Stephen Boppart is leading the initiative.

Published on April 2, 2009

Like many faculty members at the University of Illinois, images and imaging techniques play a critical role in Stephen Boppart’s research. Because of the growing relevance of imaging to almost every research endeavor, Boppart believes it is time for faculty members to come together to share knowledge, resources, and talents to help make Illinois a national leader in the use and development of imaging modalities. 

Whether it’s Boppart and an imaging technique he developed in his own work or the wide range of researchers across campus that are employing and/or developing various imaging modalities, a push is on to build a cooperative, mutually beneficial “big tent” for imaging on campus that could someday evolve into a national center. 

For medical and biological researchers, imaging techniques have become a necessary part of their work. Psychologists and neuroscientists are using them with almost as much frequency, and scientists from fields as diverse as linguistics and materials science are increasingly using modalities like magnetic resonance imaging in their research projects. That fact is why Boppart, other faculty, and campus officials such as former Beckman Institute Director Pierre Wiltzius and Illinois Provost Linda Katehi had discussions about the important role imaging plays in research at Illinois, and the growing effects of that work on the outside community.

Out of those talks arose the Strategic Initiative on Imaging, which Boppart was asked by Katehi to lead. The initiative’s mission is to build a campus-wide community around imaging techniques and uses, whether those techniques are being developed by researchers or whether they are using the modality as a tool for research. Boppart said the initiative is acknowledgment that imaging is not only important for all kinds of research, but also in people’s everyday lives. 

“Imaging is pervasive in our lives,” he said. “If you look at what faculty and researchers do, almost every investigation that is performed uses imaging, images, or is visualizing images in some way. Whether that investigation is about the fundamentals of imaging itself, whether it is using imaging to collect data, or using figures and images to describe your results, you are imaging in some way.

“Even in society, the amount of data that is floating around that we have to absorb on a daily basis is so much that we are going to have to rely on our visual system because it is the most efficient way to gather this information. We are going to see a lot more of the visual type of information exchange. I think imaging impacts everything we do.”

The Web site for the initiative states that “the Strategic Initiative on Imaging will be a Beckman Institute effort to build a campus-wide, collaborative, integrated community of faculty, researchers, and students in imaging science, imaging technology, and the application, use, and interpretation of images.”

Boppart said initial plans for the initiative are to reach campus researchers who are developing and/or using imaging modalities. 

“There is a wide base of people who use imaging in their applications and develop new science in their own field based on the results from imaging, so they are not per se imaging scientists but they are developing new science based on imaging,” he said.

Boppart said the purpose of the initiative is to facilitate research involving imaging.

“We’re not going to be directing in any way what is going to be done,” he said. “We’re really just encouraging people to talk to one another. The whole purpose is to elevate the research that is going on here, to recognize more effectively what people are doing. That’s better for them, better for the research, better for the campus. Hopefully in the end the sum is greater than the parts.”

The initial effort is aimed at facilitating and streamlining research surrounding imaging. The strategic initiative will first serve as a clearinghouse of sorts for campus researchers. So far, Boppart said, the groups that have been identified to capture the breadth of imaging across campus include those involved in biomedical and biological imaging, computational imaging, modeling and visualization, remote sensing, astronomical imaging, materials imaging, chemistry, and imaging in the arts and society.

“Our main effort is to build this community to have, even if it’s at first as simple or straightforward as a Web site, something that can be a central resource,” Boppart said. “The challenge that we face is that we want to be comprehensive and show the breadth that is here on campus, but still have focal areas that emerge, particularly if you are going after centers or particular projects. Each of those projects will be a sub-set of the people that do imaging.”

Boppart is joined in the Strategic Initiative on Imaging by Program Administrator Marina Marjanovic and Program Administrative Assistant Darold Spillman.

“The idea is to literally compile all of the resources in imaging, whether they are the facilities and instrumentation across campus, or a directory of people and their interests, and disseminate this information throughout the campus,” Marjanovic said of the initiative. “It’s interesting that a lot of people still don’t know of all the resources available, not only in Beckman but across the campus. We could make their efforts, in whatever type of imaging, much more efficient. More efficiency means more time spent on developing science and doing more research.”

In order to get the word out, the group held an open discussion at Beckman. Boppart said about 40 to 50 people attended the forum and that the list of faculty who are “somehow involved in imaging” has grown to 145 faculty members.

To start things off, the Initiative is putting together an Imaging at Illinois Workshop, to be held Sept. 10. Boppart said that invited speakers on and off campus will be coming to give this initiative the big kickoff it needs, and to help showcase the diversity in imaging at Illinois.

Boppart said the list of speakers at the workshop will include at least half who are involved with imaging at places on campus other than Beckman. “It really is just an overview of what’s going on here at Illinois and, hopefully, a preview of what is possible here.”

In addition to bringing together researchers from different fields, Boppart says the initiative will also serve to inform others who may not be familiar with imaging techniques or how they could play a role in their work.

“We are already starting to see a few cases of researchers on campus having a problem that they want to address and they are starting to talk to the imaging researchers up here and asking ‘is this possible and what can I see with this technique’ and they are finding new ways to see what they want to see,” he said.

The initiative is also looking to connect with facilities outside the University, such as Carle Foundation Hospital, which recently opened the Mills Breast Cancer Institute.

“Part of what we want to do is to have that outreach to these other institutions,” Boppart said. “Because biomedical imaging is so strong here at Beckman and on campus, it’s natural that we would want to find those clinical partners. Carle has already expressed interest in building up their research. They are making a lot of efforts, so we’ll use these connections to build upon.”

Boppart has started off the right way with Spillman and Marjanovic as his first partners in the venture. Spillman has experience in helping start new programs and facilities, working for three years at the largest American hospital in Europe and five years as a program manager at the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) headquarters. Marjanovic did her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Illinois in physiology and her postdoctoral work studies in MRI with Paul Lauterbur and Joan Dawson. For the past 12 years, she was an Assistant and Associate Professor at the Eastern Illinois University.

“Being a part of an NSF Science and Technology Center during my post-doctoral years gave me a great experience in organizing collaborative projects and writing grants in addition to my scientific background,” Marjanovic said.

“Darold’s experience in terms of setting up, organizing, and coordinating large initiatives is just invaluable,” Boppart said. “Darold worked with different groups to help set up a military training base in Romania while working at Headquarters USAFE.”

“I am a program administrative assistant, which means I am the nuts and bolts behind the two folks here,” Spillman said. “I work behind the scenes to make sure they can do everything they can.”

Boppart is also a co-chair, along with Zhi-Pei Liang, of the Beckman Institute’s newest research theme, Integrative Imaging. He said that although there is a new Beckman theme focused on imaging, other researchers from the other three themes who use or develop imaging techniques are all considered part of this strategic initiative being developed through Beckman.

“There are people doing imaging throughout the other themes,” Boppart said. “Tom Huang, Gabriele Gratton, Monica Fabiani, Art Kramer, Klaus Schulten, and many others have made imaging a major or minor part of their research.”

The strengths in imaging at Beckman and on campus mean the new initiative has a lot to build on. Huang is a pioneer in image formation and processing research, while Gratton and Fabiani have developed their own imaging technique for studying the brain and Kramer has been using MRI for years in his psychology studies. Beckman’s Biomedical Imaging Center was originally started by Lauterbur, who later won the Nobel Prize for his discoveries involving MRI. Boppart said the new initiative will tap into those strengths.  

“What we know is that there are a lot of strengths in the biomedical and biological imaging areas,” he said. “Across all modalities we have strengths, the engineering of and the applications for these modalities.”

“We also have a lot of strengths in chemistry including the people who design novel targeted contrast agents for imaging, and the nanotechnology groups. You can then take those and apply them to areas such as cognitive neuroscience, cancer imaging; those areas that really cross a lot of different disciplines across campus are our strengths.”

Boppart believes there is enough potential in this area for an imaging center or institute to be created on campus in the future. 

“Hopefully we collectively realize there are resources and strengths that will elevate our own research programs,” he said. “At the next level, groups of faculty can meet one another and think about formations of larger projects, perhaps centers that we can identify and will grow out of it. On the grandest scale, if we’ve got 150 or 200 faculty members, we have the makings of an institute.

“Is it possible that we can form an Illinois Imaging Institute for the full breadth of what we do? That’s down the road but it’s something we shouldn’t dismiss. I think there is a lot of potential interest in that from campus, from outside entities, from donors, alumni. I think a lot of opportunities are there, we just need the right cause to make it happen.”