O'Brien selected to receive Acoustical Society of America's highest research award


Laura Schmitt

During his 46-year Illinois ECE faculty career, William D O'Brien, Jr. has conducted pioneering research that enhances the imaging safety of ultrasound for expectant mothers and their babies. He has also compiled a formidable body of work on applying quantitative ultrasound to diagnosing fatty liver disease and improving the ability to determine the risk of pre-term births.

William D O'Brien, Jr.
William D O'Brien, Jr.

On December 1, 2021, he will receive the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) Silver Medal in Biomedical Acoustics for contributions to ultrasound bioeffects, dosimetry, and quantitative tissue characterization. The Silver Medal is the highest research award in medical and biomedical acoustics conferred by ASA.

In the area of ultrasound safety for obstetrics, O’Brien’s research studied the propagation of high-frequency ultrasound waves in the uterus. In a collaboration with the University of Cincinnati Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, he modeled tissue layers between the ultrasound source and fetus.

In the late 1980s, O’Brien led a task force comprised of clinicians, scientists, engineers, and government regulators to determine the Output Display Standard (ODS). ODS provided ultrasound operators with the ability to obtain the best image while protecting the mother and baby from any adverse effects from the high-frequency sound waves.

Specifically, O’Brien and the task force developed a thermal index, which estimates the temperature from an ultrasound beam, and the mechanical index, which can cause tissue damage. Today, these bioeffect indices are incorporated on all clinical ultrasound imaging devices sold worldwide.

In the area of quantitative ultrasound (QUS) application, O’Brien has investigated the basic interactions between acoustic waves and tissue, resulting in significant new diagnostic information for characterizing normal and abnormal tissue.

His QUS studies, conducted with researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Urbana-Champaign campuses, have demonstrated that ultrasound is a valuable tool in improving a physician’s ability to determine the risk of spontaneous pre-term birth. Currently, physicians rely on two patient metrics—cervix length and history of prior premature births—to predict whether a woman may be at risk of having her pregnancy result in a pre-term birth.

In another area of QUS research, O’Brien and his research colleagues at the University of San Diego have developed a way to quantitatively measure through ultrasound the amount of fat present in the liver of a patient with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition that can lead to liver failure and liver cancer.

An Illinois ECE alumnus, O’Brien (BS 1966, MS 1968, PhD 1970) was advised by ultrasound pioneer and ECE Professor Floyd Dunn, who also won an ASA Silver Medal in addition to receiving many other accolades.

O’Brien is a Fellow of ASA, IEEE, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM), and American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE); he is a recipient of the IEEE Third Millennium Medal, IEEE Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics, and Frequency Control Society's Rayleigh and Achievement Awards, and IEEE Centennial Medal as well as the ECE Departments’ Distinguish Alumni Award.

During his Illinois career, O’Brien has supervised the research of 150 graduate students, including 60 PhD graduates, 30 post-doctoral research associates, and scores of undergraduates. These students and researchers came from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, including ECE, mechanical and nuclear engineering, theoretical and applied mechanics, biophysics, nursing, nutritional and food sciences, and speech and hearing sciences.

“The neatest part is that I’ve been blessed over the past five decades to have collaborated with terrific colleagues and students,” said O’Brien, the Donald Biggar Willett Professor Emeritus in ECE. “Working with really smart people is fun.”

O’Brien will receive the award at the 181st Meeting of the ASA in Seattle, Washington.