David Mayerich’s time as a Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow comes to an end this summer, so he’s been busy sending out resumes for positions in academia and elsewhere. Early in the process, his first choice is to continue the type of research he did at Beckman and begin the life of a professor at a research university.
“I like the idea of doing research and teaching,” Mayerich said “I’ve had the opportunity to work in several different fields, and can identify several directions for future research. The university environment is great for multidisciplinary work.”
The ability to go in different directions has served Mayerich well during his time as a Beckman Fellow, and it’s set him up to make a unique contribution to biomedical research, either in academia or outside of it. He arrived here for a three-year appointment in 2009 seeking to expand his work toward advancing methods for the reconstruction and visualization of biomedical data.
As with everyone who applies to be a Beckman Fellow, Mayerich had to list his research goals for the three years of the appointment. He wrote that he planned to “focus on creating sub-cellular anatomical models of tissue as well as better ways to process and visualize datasets” by using a new microscopy technique that would “provide an unprecedented understanding of anatomy at the sub-cellular level.”
By applying computational methods not typically used by biomedical researchers, Mayerich was able to give his collaborators at Beckman a way to process large datasets and visualize tissue in a new way. His work with Beckman researcher Rohit Bhargava and former Carle — Beckman Fellow Michael Walsh has taken advantage of high-performance computing using graphics processing units (GPUs) that are powerful and inexpensive. The method allows GPU-based visualization methods for large datasets of tissue samples, enabling researchers to interactively pull out much-needed chemical information.
“The data, in addition to being large, is very difficult to process, so one of the things I’ve been working on is creating interactive methods for processing them very quickly,” Mayerich said. “This requires leveraging computational power from graphics processors, which are sometimes difficult to work with. But using that, what we can do is process the data in parallel, so you can get interactive feedback. Researchers can then adjust parameters in real-time. The end product is a 2-D image that allows them to interactively find chemical and structural information in the tissue.”
The work with Bhargava involved an imaging method Mayerich was unfamiliar with when he first arrived at Beckman, fresh off a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Texas A&M University.
“When I applied, I said I wanted to do data processing with large datasets and visualization of EM (electron microscopy) data,” Mayerich said. “I’ve done that but I didn’t know much about vibrational spectroscopy and cancer research. That’s the stuff that Rohit and Michael do and it’s a major part of what I’m working on now.”
Mayerich also continued his doctoral thesis work in which he developed a prototype microscopy technique called knife-edge scanning microscopy (KESM) that is capable of quickly imaging large three-dimensional tissue samples. He recently published a paper reporting on using KESM as a fast new method for mapping blood vessels.
Between that work and his contributions to imaging large biomedical datasets, Mayerich appears to be in a unique place as he enters the job market.
“A lot of fields aren’t fully leveraging the computational tools that are available,” he said. “Being around here it has been easy to find things I can do for colleagues, especially in high-performance computing and visualization. It’s difficult for biologists to realize that they need parallel computation and then it’s an even bigger step for them to have to implement algorithms. It’s still pretty complicated for researchers outside of computer science to use the most recent computational tools, but it is getting easier.”
Mayerich says his time as a Beckman Fellow — a program in which no teaching or other duties are required — helped prepare him for a future position leading a research team.
“The research focused experience here is excellent, the fact that you’re put into a situation where you have freedom to do whatever you want, to pursue different research goals,” Mayerich said. “You even have enough funding to start projects, and that is very good. I was able to get equipment and work on things that are in fact unique to this university, in addition to collaborating with Beckman faculty.”
As a soon-to-be Beckman Fellow alumni, Mayerich is in a good position to advise those who just joined or are thinking about applying to the program.
“One thing that you want to do, coming in here, is to try and hit the ground running,” he said. “Have a project in mind for yourself. I think I got the most out of it because I had projects that I wanted to work on and then I could also collaborate with other people. So if you have two or three good projects going in parallel then you have stuff you’re working on regularly.”