Stephen Boppart


Stephen Allen Boppart
Stephen Allen Boppart

Q: What is your area of expertise?
A: My interests involve developing new optical biomedical imaging technology. It really spans the whole gauntlet from designing new technology, designing new fundamental principles and mechanisms for imaging, developing acquisition systems, testing these on biological samples, and ultimately, taking our technology from the lab and translating it into clinical applications. I have an MD as well as my PhD, and I’m very interested in getting technology into clinical use. I have set up a lab and a process by which we can develop these technologies and then even bring them to Carle Foundation Hospital and other hospitals where we can begin to use these in human trials. We’ve done that for a number of ongoing studies.

Q: Give me a brief synopsis of your education and career.
A: I was here in electrical and computer engineering for my bachelor’s degree and also my master’s degree. During my bachelor’s degree, I became interested in bioengineering. I was very interested in understanding brain tissue or neurons and how they form electrical activity and networks. After I finished my master’s degree, I was on an Air Force fellowship. I went to an Air Force research lab where I studied laser tissue interactions, and tried to set federal standards for the safe use of lasers and light with tissue. One of our collaborators at the time, Jim Fujimoto at MIT, was developing a new technique called optical coherence tomography. He had this technique that allowed us to image tissue with very high resolution. I got to know him, and that was a natural extension for me to join his group for my PhD. The program I was in at MIT was medical and electrical engineering. We were exposed to a lot of the medical classes. I was always interested in what I was imaging and understanding normal tissue and disease and because of that, I enrolled in medical school classes at Harvard. Most of my PhD work was in developing this technology called optical coherence tomography, or OCT. It was a pretty exciting time because it was a new technology that was really growing. When I was accepted here at Illinois, one of the things that Illinois was great at allowing me to do was continuing my medical training. At a lot of places, you essentially have to stop your research if you go on to do medical training. I really attribute a lot to Illinois for forward thinking about allowing me to do medical training here in town at Carle, and at other hospitals and the College of Medicine, and at the same time, getting my lab started. I finished up my medical training because it gave me the experience to know what it’s like to deliver patient care, see where the state of the art of healthcare is, and realize how technology-starved medicine is. Essentially what I do now is think about how I can develop new technology that will have an impact on healthcare and medicine.

Q: Why did you become an engineer?
A: My father was an agricultural engineer, and he used to bring home engines for me to take apart and get interested in putting them all back together. I never could put them all back together, but it was fun to take them apart. I think from a very early age, I was exposed to a lot of engineering, and hands-on, and very much developing new ideas. I was just very curious about how things worked, trying to solve problems, and just trying to learn about the world around me.

Q: What keeps you interested in your field?
A: My field and what I do is so interdisciplinary that it keeps it exciting. The work we do is at the interface between engineering, medicine, and biology. If I tend to get bored with one field, I can start thinking about another. There have been so many new advancements in each of these fields, and I think it’s even more exciting to think about how they can be combined. That alone is what I think keeps me going. Also, we’re really developing technologies that will affect human health. I think the fact that you can use your insight or your skills to perhaps improve the healthcare of yourself or others is something I think is very motivating.

Q: Tell me about a research accomplishment you’re most proud of.
A: I think what I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to kind of see this technology make it all the way to the patients and see where this could make a difference. One of the technologies we’re developing, OCT, allows us to get an image of cells in real time. We have an ongoing study where our system is in the operating room. For women that are getting lumpectomies for breast cancer, what our study is involved in is to take that lumpectomy specimen once it’s been removed, and in the operating room, image the surface of it to see if there are any residual cells. This is of course ongoing, but already we’re starting to see that our technology is finding tumor cells that the surgeons are leaving behind. To me, the potential for that is very rewarding. Once this technology is approved by the FDA and is put into mainstream use, we’re going to be finding tumor cancer in real time where we can make a significant difference. This technology is being spun off into a startup company. I’m excited to know that with industry’s help, we might be able to disseminate these ideas and this technology on a much broader scale. I’m hopeful that in maybe five years or so, we’ll have systems that are more regularly used.

Q: What made you want to go into teaching?
A: One of the most rewarding things for me as a professor is to teach new students and others, and to hopefully pass on the excitement and satisfaction that I got out of the whole experience. I really see my former adviser Bruce Wheeler as my inspiration for choosing this career path. When I was an undergraduate and became interested in research, it was Bruce who really gave me the keys to his lab and allowed me to start pursuing a lot of different ideas. I want to provide that same opportunity, to say here’s a huge set of laboratories and equipment to really test your ideas to use however you want.

Q: What role do students play in your research?
A: It’s really up to the students to take ideas and run with them. I think that it comes from all levels. I have post docs, graduate students and undergraduates, and each contribute in a way. The post docs really are there to provide that expert knowledge, the day-to-day operations in the lab. The graduate students are at the stage where they’re fully exploring their ideas and doing different projects. I think even undergraduates play a very critical role. They bring in new perspectives and ideas. So often we get fixed in the ways we think about problems. Undoubtedly they will bring something to the project that we’ve never considered.

Q: You have been at Illinois since 2000, but you also were here from 1986-1991 for your bachelor’s and master’s degrees. What do you enjoy most about being here?
A: One of the reasons that attracted me back to Illinois was really the flexibility the department offered me in my position and ideas. But more importantly, the culture of Illinois in our department is such that it is very collegial and very large. We have so many experts her on campus. If I have any ideas that require some other expertise, I can find it here. The environment is such that, while it’s fast paced and  somewhat pressured as any academic institution is, there’s a sense that Illinois provides a bit more of an opportunity to think creatively and take the time to think about new ideas and explore those ideas collaboratively. It’s not so high pressure that your motivation is based on the pressure you feel. Here, I think you really have the opportunity to be creative. That is one of the most important parts of being a professor is that your job is to be creative, whether it’s in your research, your teaching or service to others.

Q: Over the years, you have received several service awards. Which one is most meaningful to you? Why?
A: There was one award that was part of Technology Review Magazine’s Top 100 young innovators in the world. I received this based on my medical imaging technology. I think that was very rewarding to have that level of recognition. More recently, I received an award from the 4H Alumni Association. It was recognition that I’m an alumnus in the 4H program. I was a member through high school. I always look back to 4H as being one of those programs that really taught me life skills. I don’t know if that same type of experience is available to everyone else. I’m proud that 4H played such an important role in my life and shaped me to be the person I am today.

Q: What technology that’s currently under development are you most excited to see completed?
A: One of the more exciting things that we’ve done is part of our imaging is about designing contrast agents. These are particles that are administered to tissue in some way. They can be targeted to be attached to tumor cells. One of the new types we’ve developed is based on magnetic nanoparticles that can be modulated, so they basically will move inside a tissue. This is kind of a brand-new class. Most contrast agents will target a tissue and sit there and then provide contrast when you image. Because they are moving, they can give an idea of the mechanical properties of the tissue. They can heat up or they can disrupt tissue, and potentially, they can be used as a therapeutic agent. It’s very early, we’ve started with an NIH grant, but it’s only been a few years since we’ve been developing these. This is something I can see taking off in the next five or ten years.

Q: What do you think the future holds?
A: The OCT technology in general has kind of reached this exponential growth phase. It was really developed in 1991and has made a clinical impact on ophthalmology, looking at the eye. It’s been exciting to see that more companies are now building these systems. I think we will start to see optical imaging become a more commonplace medical imaging technology. If you think of medical imaging these days, you think of the big ones, MRI, CT, ultrasound. I think what we’ll see in the next decade or two is that we will use optical techniques in a very different way to make medical diagnoses. Rather than making the diagnosis in the pathology lab, the goal is to shift that so you can have that same diagnostic information right at the point of care. I think that’s ultimately going to improve healthcare and improve diagnosis.