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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    Lauterbur’s Legacy: Symposium Honors MRI Pioneer

    Paul Lauterbur, one of the leading pioneers of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), was honored last Friday, Sept. 7 in a symposium titled ‘Lauterbur’s Legacy: Looking at Life.’ At the symposium, both traditional and innovative technologies in healthcare, environment and energy were explored through talks by some of the leading scientists and professors at Stony Brook University.

    The plenary speaker was Richard Ernst, an Emeritus Professor from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Ernst is a 1991 Nobel laureate in Chemistry and had known Lauterbur on both a personal and professional level. Speaking in layman’s terms, Ernst charted almost 70 years of Lauterbur’s life from his birth in Sidney, Ohio to his rise to fame at SBU and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign, where he once published 24 papers in one year and finally, the long-awaited Nobel Prize.

    Ernst began with this quote: ‘It is easy to make new friends when you’ve just won a prize.” This was followed by several such light-hearted, yet profound quips. He described Lauterbur’s early school years at the Holy Angels Catholic School in Ohio, quoting Lauterbur: ‘I remember little of it except that the nuns who taught there seemed to value order and discipline above all else.” He then talked about the chemistry set that Lauterbur’s aunt, Anne Lauterbur (his ‘favorite aunt’) had given.’ Ernst chuckled, concluding that Lauterbur had probably ‘learned more from her than the nuns.’

    Lauterbur’s scientific background strengthened at the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, OH, where he majored in chemical engineering although his interests lay in biology, organosilicon chemistry and magnetism. In fact, he skipped a course on unit operations and instead opted to study quantum mechanics, which prevented him from becoming an engineer.

    Before Lauterbur arrived at SBU, he had already published a paper in the army. The paper, titled ‘NMR Spectra of Phosphorous Composition,’ at the Army Chemical Center in Maryland, was written with Norbert Muller and Jerome Goldenson. NMR stands for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, an imaging technique essential to MRI. At this point, he had become a ‘world expert on Carbon-13 NMR,’ according to Ernst.

    Lauterbur’s research experiences at the army foreshadowed his work on MRI. However, he hit a lull when he first arrived at SBU, taking 11 years to complete his Ph.D. and becoming a professor in 1962. Here he studied isotope effects, chemical shifts, anisotopies and continued to work on C-13 NMR. He was quoted as saying, ‘By that time having gotten over my distaste of professors, becoming one myself.’ At this time, he published few papers.

    Everything changed after his 1969 visit to ETH Zurich, where he met Ernst. Ernst quoted Lauterbur capturing what was on his mind at the time: ‘Two interests led towards imaging — computer-aided acquisition and processing, and biological applications.’ After this he went on a sabbatical for two years to Stanford, Baldeschwieler. This was followed by what Ernst called Lauterbur’s ‘miraculous year.’ On Sept. 1, 1971, a seminal gradient idea struck him during dinner with G. Donal Vickers. Ernst showed pages from Lauterbur’s diary at this point.

    This idea came to a culmination when Lauterbur presented a NMR image of a calf heart at the 15th Experimental NMR Conference. His passion ignited, Lauterbur continued to work after this on different ideas, such as gas phase zeumatography and Fluorine-19 NMR, publishing a total of 17 papers in a year at SBU.

    In 1984, Lauterbur won the Lasker award, and in 1987 he won a medal from President Ronald Reagan. He was quoted as saying, ‘It is often impossible to predict the hidden to be revealed at the end of a research journey.’ And in 2003, he finally won the Nobel Prize in Medicine along with Sir Peter Mansfield. Ernst ended the talk with a quote from Lauterbur, ”All science is interdisciplinary, from magnetic moments to molecules to men.”

    The speech was followed by a luncheon and a reception, which was later followed by talks on their research by Joan Dawson, Associate Professor of Molecular & Integrative Physiology, Biophysics, and Neuroscience at U. Illinois,’ Joanna Fowler, Senior Chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at SBU, Clare Grey, Professor of Chemistry and Associate Director of Center for Environmental Molecular Science at SBU.

    The plenary speech was followed by a champagne reception and a banquet at the Charles B. Wang Center. The symposium was organized by Francis T. Bonner, who acted as the Committee Chair, along with the help of several SBU faculty to create what was undoubtedly, a legacy for Lauterbur.

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