University faculty awarded 2014 AAAS fellowships

Steve Boppart, director of Imaging at Illinois, was surprised when he found out that he would become a fellow of one of the oldest, largest and most prestigious scientific societies last month. His assistant wasn’t.

“I’m surprised he hadn’t already won it,” assistant Darold Spillman said. “He’s already well-known for his work with imaging. It’s a great honor, but I’m amazed it took this long.”

Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science announced which researchers would be given fellowships. Four are University faculty: Boppart, Sharon Hammes-Schiffer, Kanti Jain and William Paul King. 

Boppart still doesn’t know which of his colleagues nominated him for the honor. He was told not to tell anyone after the unexpected email arrived in his inbox in November until it was officially announced later that month but has been motivated since receiving the notice.

“It inspired me to work even harder now,” he said. “What’s always motivated my work is that I want to help people and change the world for the good and use technology and use engineering to solve our problems.”

For the past 20 years, Boppart has been developing optical coherence tomography as an alternative to ultrasound imaging. Instead of using sound waves to see a fetus or internal organs, he is working to create high-resolution images from light waves. Because the level of detail optical coherence tomography can capture, it avoids the trouble of having to take out tissue to examine under microscopes.

This level of detail will not just make medical professionals’ jobs easier, but it will save lives. 

“It’s (going) to solve a lot of the problems in medicine and health care — using engineering and developing these new devices and technologies to do things like detect cancer or detect disease at the earliest stages,” he said. “This is where we can treat disease best, and hopefully have the right treatments to cure disease like cancer.”

Boppart said around 30 percent of breast cancer patients who undergo surgery will need to undergo further operations because tumor cells are left behind. Because the surgeon does not have a microscopic view, he or she cannot see whether enough tumor cells have been removed. With optical coherence tomography, surgeons can.

Basic check-ups will change as well. Instead of shining a penlight and using what is essentially a magnifying glass, doctors will have the chance to examine cells to see whether disease is sprouting. 

On Feb. 15 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago, the new fellows will be recognized for their work with a ceremony. Boppart will walk out with a pin and plaque in his hands.

Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Rashid Bashir became an AAAS fellow in 2012. Like Bashir, Boppart will get a chance to experience the fellowship as well as taking a break from work for the ceremony.

“I’m very excited and very proud for this to be bestowed upon him,” Bashir said. “I think of his work highly. He absolutely deserves this award.”

But when the ceremony ends, the work will pick up again just like always.

“It’s always gratifying when awards are given, but at the end of the day, it’s the work that excites us,” Bashir said. “Being able to use these technologies to help people, cure disease, save lives is what keeps me going and motivates me,” Boppart said.

Stanton can be reached at [email protected]