I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details.Einstein could afford to be pretty ambitious. Being a mere mortal, I figured smaller career goals would more appropriate. So I've decided to study the thoughts of the human brain by examining the spectra of elements in the brain. The devil is in the details.
After just a few weeks of taking an elective during my 2nd year of physics graduate school, I found medical physics, particularly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to be fascinating. The potential of MRI to study the brain in new ways was clear. It just so happened that the professor leading our class's tour of Iowa's MRI facility had a research project in need of a graduate student.
That research project involved a MRI technique called MR Spectroscopy (MRS), which fit well with my background in physics. MRS can be described as the combination of the NMR experiments that chemists and physicists do and the typical MRI you get in a hospital. While the typical MRI shows anatomical features in great detail, MRS is looking at the chemical content in your body. This is particularly useful when studying the chemistry of the brain, because magnetic resonance does not have harmful radiation like X-rays, CT or PET scans do. So, a person can be scanned over and over again with no fear that the brain will be damaged ... which, you know, ... is nice.
My particular project is building a software tool called BrainCSI to help analyze MRS scans. It turns out that it is fairly difficult to get quantitative information on the brain chemicals. Absolute quantitative information is important if we want to compare the chemical content between my brain and your brain (to tell how we're different) or between my brain yesterday and my brain tomorrow (to tell how it's changed).
Working on this project has given me the opportunity to work with a wide range of researchers at the University of Iowa. This multi-disciplinary nature of my work is really what keeps me interested in my field. My lab collaborates with electrical engineers, psychologists, radiation oncologists, psychiatrists, radiologists, computer engineers, statisticians, etc., etc. And here I am, in the center of it all, getting to peer into the brain to figure out how one nature's greatest mysteries works.