Boppart named a Fellow of the Optical Society of America

ECE News

Charlie Johnson, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • Prof. Stephen Boppart was named a Fellow by the Optical Society of America.
  • OSA members can become Fellows when they are recognized for "serving with distinction in the field of optics."
  • Boppart currently heads the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory.

Stephen Allen Boppart
Stephen Allen Boppart

“Keep it simple.”

That’s what ECE Professor Stephen Allen Boppart tells his graduate students: “Keep it simple.” And, Boppart’s philosophy seems to be paying off. Boppart was recently named a Fellow by the Optical Society of America (OSA) for his numerous contributions to the field of optics.

“I’ve been working in this field for what seems like a relatively short amount of time, and I’m very honored to be recognized at this stage. But, it sometimes makes me think I’m getting older than I realize!” said Boppart.

OSA members are elevated to the rank of Fellow when they are recognized for having “served with distinction in the field of optics.” Bylaws restrict OSA Fellows to 10% of the total membership, which includes over 14,500 physicists, biologists, engineers, and other scientists and businesspeople. Boppart will be formally inducted during a ceremony as part of an OSA conference in 2009.

“Being a Fellow is a title and an honor, but I think there is a responsibility to the society itself to further the research your doing and look at the educational aspects of your research,” said Boppart.

Boppart, an Illinois native, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Illinois before rejoining the University as a faculty member in 2000. Boppart also holds a PhD in electrical and medical engineering from MIT and an MD from Harvard Medical School.

Since his return to Illinois, Boppart has been heading the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory, which has been home to many of his optical accomplishments. Biophotonics is the application of light in the fields of medicine and biology, and the thrust of Boppart’s research revolves around creating optical images of human tissue. These images can be used in many different applications, but primarily they allow doctors to be able to better detect and treat diseases in earlier stages where treatment is usually easiest and most successful. “The goal is to develop new optical technologies that we can use for diagnostics and imaging in biology and medicinal applications,” said Boppart.  The use of optics in medicine is nothing new—microscopes have been used in the field for hundreds of years—but more and more, scientists and doctors are turning to the field of biophotonics for help diagnosing and treating serious illnesses non-invasively.

While magnetic resonance, nuclear, ultrasound, and x-ray imaging allow doctors to develop noninvasive three-dimensional images, resolution is sacrificed in order to gain dimension. In optical imaging, depth of imaging can be limited, but micron resolution and molecular sensitivity can be achieved. With this resolution comes a variety of possibilities.  For example, instead of conducting a biopsy on cancerous tissue only after an invasive surgical procedure has been completed, doctors can use the high resolution optical imaging technologies that Boppart has developed to perform an “optical biopsy.” Instead of having to wait for a biopsy after the surgery is over to determine whether all potentially harmful tissue was removed, doctors can now make the diagnosis at the point of care, eliminating the need for additional invasive surgeries.

Boppart has had a hand in developing optical coherence tomography (OCT), an imaging technique that collects the reflection of light waves (much like how ultrasound technologies collect the reflection of ultrasonic waves) and allows doctors to see several millimeter into a tissue at an extremely high resolution. OCT is helping ophthalmologists develop detailed images of the eye and is eradicating the need for random biopsies in the treatment of certain cancers.

Even though these new technologies appear complex, Boppart sees the future of his research in simpler terms. “We tend, as engineers, to develop really complicated systems. But these systems are not practical in a clinical setting,” he said. “What I have been thinking about lately is, ‘What is one small piece of data that we can capture with an optical technique that would make a significant difference?’” By developing simpler, intelligent treatments and tools, Boppart hopes to eliminate what he calls the “bottleneck” between the complexity of laboratory research and the practicality of clinical practice. The easier and more affordable a technology can be used by doctors in the field, the better.

Keep it simple, he says.

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