Rohit Bhargava had fashioned a nice life for himself after earning advanced degrees in chemical engineering and polymer science. He had a solid position at the National Institutes of Health that provided financial security and a platform for doing interesting research. Bhargava also enjoyed the Washington, D.C. lifestyle, but after a couple of years he found himself wanted something more.
"Things were really going well there, I had a staff position and the federal government is a really nice place to work," Bhargava said. "But I started thinking, what do I need to do long-term? I realized what I was missing was the interaction with students."
So Bhargava ended up at the University of Illinois as a Professor of Bioengineering and as a full-time member of the Beckman Institute's Bioimaging Science and Technology group. These days Bhargava continues doing research while also experiencing the joy of teaching.
"I think that's what drove me," he says of returning to academia. "I enjoy the teaching part, the working with students part. My grad students are doing well, winning awards, making good progress at publishing papers. I think part of the satisfaction with this job is to see them do well. Of course it's my research, I can do it here or at NIH, but it's also working with the young people here that's nice."
That interest in the human equation also drives Bhargava's research interests. He joined NIH to continue working to develop chemical imaging methods for medical and research applications. A few days later he heard a talk on problems in histopathology and realized his imaging approaches could be used to solve some of those problems. That took him down a road that he believes will eventually lead to greatly improved imaging techniques and better diagnosis of disease.
"At first it was just a desire to solve a problem that it seemed like I could solve," Bhargava said. "But the more I examined it the more I realized that what I did not appreciate as an engineer is the human aspect of this problem. The minute you start to see that your work can have real impact on people you start to become really serious very quickly."
Bhargava's research group is currently focused on creating an automated method for determining whether certain kinds of prostate cells have the potential to cause life-threatening cancer. He said that current methods provide, at best, a correct diagnosis one-half of the time for the more than 200,000 men diagnosed with prostate cancer each year. Creating an automated technology with chemical imaging techniques could provide more accurate diagnoses for prostate cancer, and prevent unneeded surgery.
"The key question now is how do we determine who are those people who are going to get the truly risky kind of prostate cancer versus those who have incidental and agerelated prostate cancer," Bhargava said.
Imaging techniques that include chemical information are a rapidly emerging aspect of bioimaging, Bhargava said. By integrating chemistry with structural information, researchers and technicians are able to look at how structures change over time when they evaluate an image. While the original chemical imaging methods were created elsewhere, Bhargava's work has taken the technology to a new level, creating techniques that allow imaging in a matter of seconds as opposed to older methods requiring several days.
"It's a very powerful technique to look at both chemistry and structure simultaneously and our group pioneered this technology," Bhargava said.
Bhargava finds satisfaction in that research accomplishment and in the fact his students are wining awards and publishing papers. Now what he would like to see is the technique for greatly improving diagnosis come to fruition.
"I think that is the most rewarding thing, that in a few years you could truly help people and do research that's not isolated," Bhargava said. "The scientific aspects are interesting and very satisfying intellectually, but the real payoff I think is the fact that you can truly help people."
This article is part of the Fall 2007 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.