Simmons Students Experiment with Focused Ultrasound
"I like to connect physics to healthcare, to give my students context," says Associate Professor of Physics Phillip Jason White. "I’ve worked in health care for over 20 years — in radiology, transplantation, cardiology, neurology — and I use all of that experience to teach physics."
As an undergraduate, White double majored in physics and music. He went to graduate school to study acoustics, seeing this as the connection between the two fields, but was disillusioned to find the emphasis on engineering rather than music. After doing solid state research with acoustics and ultrasound, he returned to the professional world of music as part of a quintet that landed a residency at a small conservatory in Cambridge. To fund his new life in Boston, he got a job as a lab technician at the Focused Ultrasound Lab in the Department of Radiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Harvard Medical School (HMS).
"We were trying to figure out how to transmit ultrasound through the human skull," says White, "and what I had learned about acoustics helped." He was soon presenting at conferences and decided to finish his PhD in acoustics. In 2016, the FDA approved the use of focused ultrasound to treat tremors in Parkinson’s patients. "It’s a non-invasive surgery, done with a neurosurgeon," says White. "Through the intact human skull, we’re able to locate the place to burn the tissue in the thalamus. It takes about a minute to create a lesion inside the thalamus, and the patient’s tremor literally vanishes. I’ve seen patients cry at that moment, because they haven’t seen their hands still for decades. I knew this was something I needed to share with students."
And that is what White did, connecting with Simmons students in Chemistry and Physics who were looking for opportunities for a research capstone. "They were the most motivated and enthusiastic students I’ve ever come across. They already had lab experience, which is rare for undergraduates, and they were excited to do research." They were developing tools on a benchtop in a physics lab, then migrating them to the hospital. "I brought these students to the hospital to see how we use focused ultrasound to treat people. Then we returned to the lab to figure out other applications." White supervises student work at the Biomedical Ultrasound Lab (BMUS) at Simmons (Park Science Building, fourth floor), where current students are developing ways to treat epilepsy and cancer using focused ultrasound. "The students can see the social good that they are doing and that they are helping other people. When students use these tools, they can identify as scientists and researchers and feel like there is a place for them in the field."
Students Madiha Kabeer ’22 (Chemistry), Dan Nguyen ’24 (Physics), and Jawaria Ali ’25 (Chemistry) are researching the use of focused ultrasound to treat epilepsy; specifically, to determine how the skull bone affects the transmission of ultrasound. All three students were drawn to BMUS to explore medical applications for physics. During the pandemic, the students worked in the lab with Dr. White and Dr. Michael Jordan, learning how to run experiments and use the computer system. "We recently had the opportunity to observe the procedure in the hospital, and it was a great learning experience to see the device in action. It was great to see the applications of the work we are involved in," says Kabeer.
Ali agrees. "Being able to observe the device at work in a clinical setting brought about a new sense of motivation and meaning to the research we are conducting in the lab." Ali also feels that the experiences in the BMUS lab are distinct from regular lectures and science labs. "The BMUS lab is physics, engineering, neuroscience, medicine — everything combined. I never would have thought that I was interested in physics until I saw how it was being used in the BMUS lab."
Nguyen finds the lab work relevant to her physics studies. "I also get to learn about programming in the lab," she says. "I don’t have time to take many Computer Science classes, so physics research is another way for me to learn how to use MATLab programming without the CS classes. " While a student may not plan on getting a PhD, Nguyen sees the value of the research experience even if they get a job in industry post-graduation. "There are so many benefits that come from working on a project. I’ve gained so much satisfaction and learned so many skills outside of the classroom."
Kabeer, a Chemistry major, took a medical imaging class with Dr. White. "We learned about different modalities, and ultrasound was a big one. In the BMUS lab we apply physics and engineering to real world research. The science I learned came to life in the lab," says Kabeer, who is now working on a separate thesis with Dr. White. "I enjoy working in the BMUS lab especially because of the medical applications with an interdisciplinary approach involving engineering, physics, and neuroscience. It’s a great learning environment without any stress or pressure. This has allowed me to grow as a researcher and obtain many practical skills."
All three students encourage others to talk to professors about research opportunities. "Even first year students should ask faculty about their research. Faculty won’t say no to first years!" says Nguyen. Kabeer agrees: "Even if a lab is full, the faculty in the Chemistry & Physics Department will get you involved. Dr. White is great at finding a project that can align with your interests." They also agree that there are plenty of opportunities to connect with professors. "Even if you don’t know if research is for you, take a tour of the lab and talk to Dr. White or a student who is involved in a project," says Ali. "Simmons professors are passionate about what they do and want more students to join their research. Dr. White has so many projects he wants to start, he needs more students involved!"
"The lab is a growth space," says Nguyen. "Currently there aren’t many physics majors around, but I hope our work will attract more students to the program."
Photo courtesy of Professor Phillip Jason White:
Back row (l-r): Madiha Kabeer, Yumna Isaacs, Jason White, Michael Jordan, Kainat Altaf, Faiza Akther
Front row (l-r): Elsy Romero, Brianna Neptune, Dan Nguyen, Jawaria Ali, Geraldina Cruz