Humans have long wished to see beyond what our limited vision permits. For proof, consider the invention of microscopes, telescopes and satellites. Today at the University of Lethbridge, researchers are using state-of-the-art digital imaging technologies to view even more areas – within the body and across the planet – that would otherwise be inaccessible to mortal eyes. Along the way, vast amounts of data are being collected.
"Solutions to the world's biggest problems can be resolved with high-quality, reliable data," says Dr. Daniel Weeks, the U of L's vice-president (research). "Our researchers are gathering, analyzing and making data more useful so important decisions can be made faster and more easily."
For example, using sensors to acquire information about the Earth's surface (a process called remote sensing) can help farmers evaluate the health of their crops. In medicine, similarly, magnetic resonance imaging, which produces 3-D images of soft tissue, can enable doctors to assess a patient's brain after a stroke.
For these reasons, and many more, imaging was named one of the top 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century by the National Academy of Engineering in the United States. Indeed, imaging is effecting enormous change in multiple fields. In recent years, the U of L has attracted numerous international imaging-science researchers in such diverse disciplines as physics, astronomy, kinesiology, geography, neuroscience and new media. As a result, the University identified imaging as a key area for growth.
There are many on-campus facilities dedicated to supporting imaging research at the U of L. They include two remote-sensing laboratories, a brain-imaging centre and a soon-to-be completed and unique-in-Canada facility for calibrating remote-sensing instruments. Also, the University is home to a satellite-receiving station that is operated in conjunction with Iunctus Geomatics Corp., founded by U of L alumnus Ryan Johnson (BSc '98, MSc '00).
Coburn is finding new ways to solve problems with, and extract information from, remotely sensed data. He has built remote-sensing instruments for such clients as the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And while the official use of the instruments is classified, Coburn speculates their job may be to spot disturbances in soil. This data could indicate the presence of landmines, for example.
"Imaging is about more than pictures," says Coburn, reflecting broadly on the field. "These are scientific-grade research instruments floating in space and they can provide a lot of valuable information if we know how to render the image."
The same is true of neuroimaging instruments, says Cross. "Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we can track activity in the brain and unravel how the brain is organized."
An MRI physicist, Cross is developing new, minimally invasive techniques for neuroimaging. Using lab rats, Cross is studying the efficacy of manganese as a way to produce contrast changes in regions of the brain that correspond to prior experiences during MRI scans.
Imaging science can effect tremendous change in many fields, Weeks believes. On that note, the University plans to broaden the impact of its imaging science research. "We're reaching out to potential partners in China, India and Germany, for instance. By finding new collaborators and exploring new avenues of discovery together, we can further increase the University's global footprint in this exciting area of investigation."
Long before Star Trek popularized the phrase, "To boldly go where no man has gone before," humanity has been interested in the cosmos. But sending people deep into space is dangerous and expensive. Fortunately, extraterrestrial imaging enables us to find faraway stars, galaxies and planets, and puts the universe in closer reach.
We already have proof that the brain is a powerful tool. You do, after all, remember the location of your keys (most days). But in what areas of the brain does thinking actually happen? And how does the whole system work? By providing images of the brain as it goes about its business, neuroimaging offers important insights about the process of cognition.
Movement is something many of us take for granted. But researchers know there's more to human motion than heaving yourself out of bed, running around with a to-do list and then crashing on the couch. What are the subtle mechanics of motion? Knowing this information will advance our understanding of how bodies move, and will benefit everything from the fine arts to the field of kinesiology.
The air that surrounds our planet may appear clear some days and a smoggy soup on others. But no matter the atmosphere's appearance, there's always a mix of gases up there. Some have little impact on our weather. Others, like carbon dioxide, are dramatically changing our climate. Atmospheric imaging researchers study the composition of the Earth's atmosphere and detect the trace gases that can be climatic game-changers.
We've come a long way from the days of setting out on long expeditions to record the contours and features of the land. Today, we look above to satellites for a big-picture view of the planet. But small details are significant, too. For instance, what's happening on the Earth's surface in each region of the world? Satellite imaging enables us to see such phenomena as deforestation and the development of deserts.