The University of Arizona's Jennifer Barton is the assistant director and No. 3 person at Bio5 Institute, she is the department head of the newly established Department of Biomedical Engineering, chair of the Biomedical Engineering Graduate Interdisciplinary Program, and she is a researcher and teaches classes within optics, electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering.
"Most faculty members end up teaching, doing research and some sort of service," said Barton, who is also a Arizona Cancer Center member. "My service just happens to be more administrative. It seems like a lot but although I wear a lot of different hats, they're all the same color. It's really synergistic work."
Barton never saw herself going down this path. She worked with McDonnell Douglas Aerospace for six years, part of that time on the international space station program before returning to the University of Texas at Austin for her PhD in biomedical engineering.
"I never envisioned myself becoming a faculty member. I was quite sure when I went back to graduate school that I was going to go right back into industry," she said. "But life pulls you in interesting directions. It's like research, you start working on a problem and you see possibilities from it and you follow the possibilities."
Barton was drawn to the UA 12 years ago when the school was putting together a graduate degree program in biomedical engineering.
"I had the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a program and help design that degree and that was really appealing to me,” she said. "I had never done anything like that before, but it was new and exciting."
This spring, the college of engineering announced there would be a department of biomedical engineering and they tapped Barton to be the new department head.
"We did not want to start an undergraduate program until a few things happened," she said. "There was a period of time that this field wasn't very well established and people in industry were slightly leery of hiring graduates from that field because they didn't know what to expect. We also needed more demand from the students and we are seeing that now."
She said the department was announced in March and they had 15 freshmen transfer into it and another 35 sign up for it for the fall.
"The response has been great," Barton said. "It looks like we'll have our goal of 60 students per year in just a year or two."
The department was developed to focus on three main areas of biomedical engineering: bio-imaging, cardiovascular engineering and nano medicine.
In addition to being department head, Barton teaches a class within the department titled "Challenges in Biomedical Engineering."
"It's the best class because I get to go in there every week and talk about a different challenge like diabetes or heart failure and then talk about what biomedical engineers are doing in order to address those challenges," she said. "I get to slip some of my own research in as well as the research of some of my colleagues which keeps me fresh on what’s going on in the field."
Barton's research focuses on optical imaging as she is developing the technology and potential applications of cancer detection utilizing optical coherence tomography, OCT, a noninvasive technique that directs a beam of near-infrared light on tissue. The light penetrates a few millimeters and is reflected back. The resulting image is similar to an ultrasound with light. She also combines OCT with other imaging methods.
"OCT can be used for a variety of organs, but ovarian cancer caught my attention because it is such a devastating disease," Barton said. "It is a challenge because the ovaries are inside the body and there is no screening technique that works well and most women don't have any symptoms until it is very advanced.
"So if we want to look at them with OCT you would have to get right up against the ovary. That won't work in the general population, but there is a group of women who have high risk of ovarian cancer doctors often recommend removing them. Now that might not be a difficult decision to make in your 60s but that is a terrible decision to have to make in your 20s. Our idea is that if we could tell with certainty the ovaries were normal then that woman could keep her ovaries and just be screened every couple of years."
She is also looking at applying the technique to colon cancer and skin cancer.
Part of this work involves developing the tools that will be used for the screenings - something she is known for around the world.
"In order to get to the organ of interest we need to build miniature endoscopes and that's really what my lab does well," she said. "We can stay at the cutting edge by doing what we're good at here which is optical design and biomedical design and working on these endoscopes mainly."
In the early days to image blood vessels a probe would have to be held up to the skin for around a minute, today the devices can render three dimensional volumes in close to real time.
"We can get images pretty well, but the next step is finding out what those images mean," she said. "We work a lot with pathologists and surgeons to review the bright spots and dark spots on an OCT image and to tell us what those correspond to and are those features diagnostically interesting."
Part of that has meant learning new languages because pathologists, biologists, oncologists and engineers don't speak the same technical language.
"That's why I spent part of my sabbatical sitting in on biochemistry classes so I could learn some of this basic information," she said. "I also purposely choose students to come into the lab who know more than I do about an area because I tell them that one of the things they have to do is teach me. It's a two way street."
In the future Barton wants to push the limits of resolution on her devices and eventually work toward more human trials.
"They are a lot of work and a definite challenge, but that's what's necessary to verify a technique is going to be useful in a patient," she said. "Making something a technological success is one thing, but making it a clinical success and a success for human health is a higher bar than that."
Contact reporter Joe Pangburn at email@example.com or (520) 295-4259.