Feb. 16, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 12

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    Beck: Visualizing science of imaging as new discipline

    In the 100 years since Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays, non-optical methods of imaging -- from radio waves to gamma rays, vibrations to ultrasound -- have transformed the ways we are able to see the world.

    Now the science of imaging is emerging as its own discipline. Doctors who map the inner workings of the human brain with positron emission tomography (PET) face some of the same scientific and technical hurdles as astronomers who are trying to see the heat of an explosion on Jupiter with an infrared telescope.

    "The problems of capturing image data, and of reconstructing, processing, storing, displaying and analyzing images, are generic issues of imaging science that cut across all of the digital imaging modalities, whether they're microscopes or telescopes or medical imaging systems," said Robert Beck, Professor in Radiology and Director of the Center for Imaging Science. "More importantly, the principles, concepts, strategies and methods used to deal with these issues are the same for all modalities. It's for this reason that I see imaging science emerging as a new academic discipline in very much the same way that linguistics emerged years ago, or that computer science has emerged in the past few decades."

    "Forty years ago there were no departments of computer science," he added. "However, everybody was doing computation, and there were a few people who recognized that some important issues needed to be addressed at a very fundamental level."

    A sign that imaging science is coming into its own is a seminar being held this week in Atlanta. Beck, along with scientists at Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and the Museum of Science and Industry, organized the two-day seminar to explore this emerging field. "Fundamental Issues of Imaging Science" will be a highlight of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), exemplifying the conference theme, "Unity in Diversity."

    The first day of the AAAS seminar will focus on generic issues of imaging science that are involved in the production of images from all digital modalities. The second day will focus on issues related to education, from the establishment of university-based programs in imaging science and the acquisition of federal funding for multidisciplinary research to the impact of computer-based imaging technologies and high-speed networks on education and culture in the 21st century.

    The Center for Imaging Science, founded in 1986 by Beck and his colleague Albert Crewe, the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in Physics, has fostered collaboration among scientists in different disciplines. For example, in 1988, a cross-disciplinary team of scientists from the Physical Sciences Division and the Biological Sciences Division began to get a glimpse of how the structure and function of the brain are related by superimposing the different images of the brain captured by PET and by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

    PET shows regions of the brain that have high or low metabolic activity, and it can be used to follow changes in real time. MRI gives detailed structural information. Together, the two provide a powerful tool to diagnose and locate brain tumors, to study the effects of drugs or alcohol in particular areas of the brain or to study how processes of thought are related to brain structure. The methods provide new insights into how drugs affect the brain to alter many aspects of behavior and mood.

    Beck said collaboration between scientists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and scientists at Chicago may eventually lead to technology that could allow a person's entire body to be imaged by high-resolution PET.

    "This kind of technology could have important biologic, therapeutic and pharmacological implications," he said. "For example, it may help to bridge the gap between new knowledge in structural biology and both structure-based drug design and patient care, because it could enable us to screen potential drug agents and to see the effects of a drug in real time, without having to rely so heavily on time-consuming and costly clinical studies."

    The outcome of a more recent collaboration -- a cooling system developed by scientists at Argonne working on the imaging of biomolecules using X-rays from the Advanced Photon Source -- may have applications in the design of high-resolution X-ray tubes for mammography.

    Beck said that when the center was founded, he counted more than 200 faculty and staff members in nearly 40 different departments at Chicago and Argonne who were involved in imaging in one way or another. "I'm sure that since then the number has grown," he said.

    Among the many examples of projects by faculty and staff is a project headed by Robert Rosner, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics. He and his colleagues use supercomputers to model the flow of heat at the surface of the sun, creating swirling three-dimensional moving pictures of the motion of fluids. This approach is revolutionizing the way theoretical research is done, Beck said.

    On the experimental side, Keith Moffat, Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Director of the Center for Advanced Radiation Sources, creates images from X-ray diffraction patterns obtained from tiny crystals to study the structure of biomolecules. When the construction of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne -- with its extremely brilliant source of X-rays -- is completed and the APS is ready to operate, Moffat will become a pioneer in the use of X-rays to study molecules in motion.

    A project by Barbara Stafford, Professor in Art, examines scientific visualization and imaging from a historical perspective, showing how present-day scientific imaging issues had their origins in the Enlightenment.

    Beck envisions establishing a Committee on Imaging Science that would develop a graduate program organized conceptually around the generic issues of imaging science. He said that already more than 75 courses relevant to some aspect of imaging science are offered in 14 departments across four divisions at the University. Currently, Beck said, there is only one graduate program in the United States that offers a doctorate in imaging science, the program at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

    The impact of imaging technology will continue to reverberate in education and culture throughout the 21st century, said Beck.

    "With the technological convergence of the visual and verbal modes of learning/knowing and of communicating," Beck wrote in a paper published in Advances in Visual Semiotics last year, "we appear to be on the brink of a cultural revolution of unprecedented proportions -- substantially greater than that which accompanied the industrial revolution -- with which we must learn to cope and to adapt, as individuals, as a species, and as participants in a global process."

    -- Diana Steele