Faculty Q&A: J. Thomas Vaughan

Jun 20 2017 | By Joanne Hvala

J. Thomas (Tommy) Vaughan joined Columbia this spring as the University-wide director of Magnetic Resonance (MR) Research, a newly created position with joint appointments at Columbia Engineering, Columbia University Medical Center, and the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. An expert in the field of ultrahigh field magnetic resonance techniques and technologies, Vaughan is overseeing a collaborative effort to build an MR Research Center at Columbia. This summer, as Vaughan settled into his new role and his new home in bustling New York City—a change from the suburbs of Minneapolis—he spoke to Columbia Engineering magazine about the future of MR research, delivering MRI to the masses, and that time, not so long ago, when he biked around the world.

Q. How did you get into the MRI field?

A. I wanted to be an astronaut, but ended up as a civil servant for NASA on the Space Shuttle project. NASA’s contractors were doing the most creative work, so I moved to Texas Instruments to work on “a government project,” while going to grad school at UT Southwestern. I had studied biology and electrical engineering and, with my radar experience, it led me to an NMR course at UT. I was hired to build the first 2 tesla (2T) machine and then worked on the first 4T, 7T, 9.4T, and 10.5T MR systems, as the opportunities to work with more and more powerful magnets presented themselves.

Q. Columbia will be getting several state-of-the-art MR systems, some as part of a new partnership with GE. How will they be used?

A. For basic neuroscience, translational R&D, and technology transfer. Columbia will be purchasing six new GE 3T MR systems and a 7T system to be located in the Neurological Institute on the Columbia University Medical Center campus. An additional 3T MR system will belong to GE, along with a complement of half a dozen GE scientists, as part of a translational research agreement between Columbia and GE. The Zuckerman Institute will have two Siemens 3T machines, one 7T system, and a 9.4T Bruker preclinical system to be used for neuroscience. These 3T and 9.4T systems will be installed in the Zuckerman Institute by the end of October 2016.

Q. How is Columbia Engineering involved?

A. In the Columbia Engineering laboratory component of the University’s MR Research Center, we will explore new technologies and methodologies to develop new MRI systems. The World Health Organization’s data shows that only 10 percent of the world has access to MRI. In a sense, MRI hasn’t been delivered to the world. We need to find a way to do that.

We have NIH neuroscience seed money to test the feasibility of new kinds of MR. We are basically reinventing magnetic resonance—the magnet, the spectrometer, the imaging physics—to make it portable, operate anywhere in the world, delivered in the back of a bus or a pickup truck, and not dependent on the modern power grid or other infrastructure. And, of course, we hope it will be affordable.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have a 9.4T magnet in Minnesota that I want to bring to Columbia, one of five in the world. Currently wielding the most powerful field strength at which human images have been achieved, the 9.4T machine is like a Hubble Telescope for the human mind. You can see anatomy to 10 microns in-plane resolution, plus high-resolution metabolism and physiology, all in vivo and noninvasively. Being beyond the capabilities of commercial MR systems, our aim is to build a 9.4T human imager in-house at Columbia.

The many systems being delivered and used for research at the Zuckerman Institute and the Medical Center will require and benefit from new technologies and methods to improve existing approaches and to facilitate new ones in support of biomedical research.

These projects and more will fully engage Columbia Engineering faculty and students in an all-out engineering effort.

Q. How will having these machines enhance research?

A. MR is another set of eyes to the world. We will be using MR imaging (MRI) to observe anatomy. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) will be used to measure metabolism in different tissues and organs. And functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) will be used to observe brain activity and, in the process, to better understand the human mind and behavior. These powerful and comprehensive MR tools and techniques will be developed in the engineering lab and deployed in the MR laboratories in the Zuckerman Institute and in the Medical Center to investigate the human mind and body, noninvasively, in states of health, disease, and therapeutic intervention.

Q. What is the future of magnetic resonance research?

A. MR will continue to be used for basic science, clinical diagnostics, and therapy tracking. One direction is using MR together with complementary modalities (CT, PET, ultrasound) to get a more complete picture. Another is toward more powerful systems using more powerful magnets that provide more signal-to-noise to give higher spatial and temporal resolution in our images. Yet another is making MRI accessible to the rest of the world.

To bring MRI to the rest of the world requires a new way of thinking. We need to reinvent the current methods and technology, not make just incremental improvements. For example, current magnets need to be cooled in a helium bath contained by a large, heavy “Thermos bottle.” This new magnet and MR system require modern infrastructure including communications links, a reliable power grid, field service access, and a stable supply of increasingly scarce and expensive helium. But if you had a magnet of high-temperature superconducting ceramic material, weighing less than 1,000 pounds, that used liquid nitrogen from the air and could use a nonuniform field, the machine could be smaller, cheaper, and shorter. Think of an inner tube that you could put around the middle of a patient. We need to explore new magnet technology, imaging physics, and to revolutionize the MR system so that the MRI machine can be used anywhere in the world, even where there is no power. And to use a gamer’s laptop with a link to the cloud, so you can get information anywhere on the planet. This new system envisioned is now being developed in collaboration with the University of Minnesota.

Q. What will “success” look like to you, a year or two from now?

A. Organizing and funding a Center by 2018. This would give us an organizational structure that everyone can understand and peer-reviewed legitimacy. My biggest mission is to organize Columbia’s resources into a single MR Research Center.

Q. When you’re not busy in the lab or in meetings, how do you spend your time? Any hobbies or interests?

A. I moved and restored a pioneer log cabin in the North Woods on the St. Croix River, on the Wisconsin side of the Minnesota–Wisconsin border. It is kind of like Lake Wobegon. The cabin dates from 1880 and belonged to a bachelor dairy farmer from the community on which Garrison Keillor’s story was based. My son and I moved it to this off-the-grid location. Now that we are moving to New York, having this cabin in the Wisconsin woods will keep me connected to family and the outdoor activities I enjoy.

Another interest is cycling. When I was in college I took two years off to ride around the world, visiting 57 different countries. This was a mission to see what the world had to teach as I was trying to decide my own life’s directions. I now enjoy biking the route along the Hudson, from the Morningside Heights campus, up to the Zuckerman Institute at Manhattanville, and on to the Medical Center at 168th Street and back. Cycling gives me my daily exercise, transportation, recreation, and my thought for the day.

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