Gold Medal Winner

Harrison Barrett receives the SPIE Gold Medal for a lifetime of contributions to imaging science.
01 July 2011
Karen Thomas

On Christmas Day, 1949, 10-year-old Harrison Barrett received a Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. This high-end chemistry set, which included actual radio isotopes, would help inspire young Harry to a career in medical imaging.

"I set up a dark room in my family's bathroom and used towels to keep the light out," says Barrett of one seminal experiment. "After developing a roll of Kodak 620 film with an iron-55 source taped to the outside of the roll, I could see multiple images of the source. They got weaker as the gamma rays went through more layers of the film and more blurred as the layer of the film was farther from the source. At some intuitive level, at 10 years old, I understood the concept of exponential attenuation and blur by distance between source and detector."

Barrett, the 2011 recipient of the SPIE Gold Medal for his contributions to imaging science, saw television for the first time in 1951. Fascinated by this "new" technology, Barrett saved money from his paper route and enrolled in a correspondence course with the National Radio Institute. He got an FCC license in order to get jobs working on two-way radios, which he continued doing through college. During high school, he worked with a Crown Graphic 4×5-inch camera as the official photographer for the school yearbook.

 Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab
A Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab similar to one Barrett received as a gift.
Courtesy of Oak Ridge Associated Universities

Through these activities, Barrett gained a strong foundation in gamma ray imaging, television, and photography, all before being old enough to drive.

Building foundations of imaging

After receiving his PhD in Applied Physics from Harvard University in 1969, Barrett went on to become a project leader in the medical electronics unit of the research division at Raytheon Corp. in 1971. There he began his influential research in medical imaging, which continues more than 40 years later.

By 1974, Barrett was an associate professor in the Optical Sciences Center and the Department of Radiology at the University of Arizona (UA). Two years later, he was promoted to full professor, and in 1990, Barrett was granted the title of Regents Professor at the university.

To date, Barrett has published more than 250 journal papers, has given 120 invited presentations at scientific conferences, and he holds 25 patents. Probably the most renowned publication is the book, Foundations of Image Science, which he co-wrote with a former student, SPIE Fellow Kyle Myers. This treatise, winner of the SPIE/OSA Joseph W. Goodman Book Writing Award in 2006, covers the principles, data, and higher mathematics involved in imaging systems and how to comprehend and evaluate those systems.

 Roadmap for continual optimization
The "roadmap" that Harrison Barrett and Kyle Myers conceived has a feedback loop for continual optimization.

"This book is some 1500 pages long and so thick I can barely lift it, let alone read it," says James. C. Wyant, dean of the College of Optical Sciences at UA and the recipient of the SPIE Gold Medal in 2003. "This book forms the basis for the new Image Science track at the university, and it's having a broad impact on graduate programs in imaging around the world."

"The hardest part about writing this book was stopping," Barrett writes in the epilogue to Foundations. "At the end of each chapter, we could see many other directions to explore."

The eight-page epilogue was written to suggest to readers the many paths that might have been followed, "had we had several other lifetimes to do so." To illustrate these concepts, Barrett and Myers included a figure (opposite page) showing the "Roadmap for the systematic optimization of gamma-ray imaging systems." First presented by Myers in 1985 at a medical imaging conference at Georgetown University, the roadmap features a feedback path for the continual optimization of imaging systems.

Irrational pessimism

In 1973, Barrett submitted a grant to the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a colleague to study the various aspects of imaging with computers. The proposal was turned down, because the NSF felt that computers weren't powerful enough; that there was no future for computers in medical imaging.

"That's about as foolish a statement as was ever made at a grant review, I think," says Barrett, who can laugh about it now. "But people continually underestimate the things that can be done with new and greater computer power. In the epilogue to Foundations, Kyle and I speculated that an image scientist of 2031 or 2041 would have petaFLOPs computers capable of one quadrillion operations per second. Now it seems that statement was irrational pessimism, because I think that we're just two or three years away from having that level. My group alone is approaching one fifth of that level right now."

Teaching and research

"Harry's impact on imaging science is largely due to his dedication to teaching and his mentoring of graduate students," says Myers, now director of the Division of Imaging and Applied Mathematics at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health. "He brings great enthusiasm to each course, regardless of the number of times he has taught the material, and he insists on generating new teaching notes for each class to keep his presentations fresh.

"The new ground broken by his students and the resulting innovations would not have been realized without Harry's far-reaching influence, or at least not on the same scale," Myers says.

Barrett feels the reason behind much of his success in the classroom and in research is the caliber of his students.

"We have a wonderful group of students here," Barrett says. "We have a very selective admissions process, and I've been able to teach the graduate courses at a very high level."

During his 37 years at UA, Barrett has taught more than 20 different courses, all the while striving for his students to see the interconnections between materials-related imaging and concepts they've learned in other subjects, such as optics, physics, or mathematics. Barrett sees this connected knowledge as a tool kit students can use in whatever career path they may take.

"It's amazing to see a first-year graduate student, somewhat bewildered, not knowing which end of the soldering iron to hold, emerge five years later an accomplished researcher and ready to become a leader in the field," says Barrett. "So often at SPIE Medical Imaging conferences there will be 12 or 14 of my former students chairing sessions or presenting papers. They're making an impact and that's absolutely the greatest satisfaction I take from my career."

Humility prevails

When asked about winning the SPIE Gold Medal, Barrett, who has also been awarded the 2011 IEEE Medal for Innovations in Healthcare Technology, is quick to discuss the role many others have played in his success.

"I want to emphasize that this not a personal honor," Barrett says, "because I've benefitted so much from so many people. Several colleagues and talented grad students have been critical to the work at the Center for Gamma Ray Imaging.

"I've graduated 57 students with PhDs and I've learned from all of them and continue to learn from them. It's been an evolutionary process, and many, many people have contributed to it. They really deserve the acknowledgment."

The Gold Medal, the highest honor the Society bestows, recognizes Barrett's efforts in advancing the understanding of image science, formulating rigorous mathematical approaches to the assessment and optimization of image quality, and developing numerous innovative photon imaging systems.

The honor, which includes a $10,000 honorarium, was announced in February at SPIE Medical Imaging, a meeting that Barrett considers his professional home. He will formally accept the award in August at SPIE Optics and Photonics.

SPIE Gold Medal Award

The Gold Medal of the Society is the highest honor the Society bestows and comes with a $10,000 honorarium.

It has been awarded annually since 1977 to recognize outstanding engineering or scientific accomplishments in optics, electro-optics, or photographic technologies or applications.

Harrison Barrett is honored this year for advancing the understanding of image science, formulating rigorous mathematical approaches to the assessment and optimization of image quality, and developing numerous innovative photon-imaging systems.

Harrison Barrett

Harrison Barrett SPIE member and Gold Medal winner Harrison Barrett is a Regents Professor of Radiology, Optical Sciences, and Applied Mathematics at the University of Arizona. He is a longtime contributor to SPIE Medical Imaging and has served several times on its organizing committee.

Barrett has contributed greatly to the understanding of the physics, mathematics, and engineering of medical imaging and image science over the last 40 years, says Kyle Myers, who co-wrote the award-winning Foundations of Image Science with Barrett.

"His research has resulted in numerous patents and over 250 publications on image acquisition in optics, ultrasound, and especially nuclear medicine; image reconstruction, and analysis," says Myers.

Barrett has also been recognized as a top educator. "At the College of Optical Sciences, he is the person (with) the most knowledge for the broadest range of subjects," says the college's dean, James Wyant.

"He has taught the most different graduate courses of anyone here, and I think he could probably teach any of our courses. He has been the adviser of the most theses and dissertations (75) of any of our faculty," Wyant says.

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