Bringing maths into the equation to improve medical imaging

15 Nov 2022

Image: Jason Curran

Many people don’t realise how important maths is, says University of Limerick’s Jason Curran. But he’s trying to see if it could remedy issues in medical imaging.

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After completing his maths and physics degree in 2019 at the University of Limerick, Jason Curran started straight into a PhD at the university’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

His PhD is focused on applications of inverse problems in smart manufacturing. His main area of research is enhancing a medical imaging technique that could be cheaper and more convenient than current methods such as MRIs.

‘If we can improve the quality of diffuse optical tomography images, we can begin to use it more widely in hospitals and other health settings’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

I am working under Dr Romina Gaburro and Dr Clifford Nolan at the University of Limerick.

My current research is on diffuse optical tomography, which is a medical imaging technique that is useful for imaging brain and breast tissue. More specifically, my research is on the mathematics behind diffuse optical tomography.

The biggest issue facing diffuse optical tomography right now is its image quality, and thus my research focuses on how we can improve on this.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

My research is important because of the advantages that diffuse optical tomography promises over current medical imaging techniques.

Take, for example, MRI. These machines are indispensable parts of medical diagnosis and treatment but they have some major setbacks. Firstly, they are incredibly expensive for hospitals to run. MRIs work using large magnets for an extended period of time and so the amount of power required is excessive.

Diffuse optical tomography, on the other hand, requires very inexpensive equipment and works off of infrared light, which is inexpensive to produce.

Secondly, MRIs are very uncomfortable for patients, particularly those with claustrophobic tendencies. Being confined to a narrow cylindrical tube is not particularly pleasant as I am sure anyone who has experienced an MRI before knows. They are also not very convenient and can’t be administered outside of hospitals.

Diffuse optical tomography works by placing sensors at the patient’s head or breast and can be administered in an ambulance or at their bedside, making it more comfortable and versatile.

Thirdly, because of the use of magnets, MRIs are not available for certain patients. Those with piercings or implants may find that they cannot use MRI as it would be very dangerous for them to do so. Diffuse optical tomography uses infrared electromagnetic waves and therefore has no such restrictions.

Despite all the advantages diffuse optical tomography offers over MRIs, unfortunately the image resolution is very poor compared to those from an MRI. This is why my research is important – as if we can improve the image quality of diffuse optical tomography images, we can begin to use it more widely in hospitals and other health settings.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I don’t think there was a single spark that ignited inside me that made me think, I want to research. It was a gradual process for me that started when I was in school. I have always been interested in maths and science.

I remember watching documentaries on the planets with my dad when I was younger, listening to the professors and experts talking about the newest research that they had conducted filled me with a sense of wonder. As I went through school, I was lucky to have great maths and science teachers who kept my interest in both those subjects alive.

Once I had gotten to university, I got a better appreciation for how maths and science is useful in real life and how we can use it to improve people’s lives. This is perhaps when I started thinking more about a possible career in research, but I attribute my current fascination with research to my upbringing both at home and academically.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

As a mathematician, I feel that maths is something undervalued in society – even often despised. Maths is quite a difficult subject, even for people who are good at it, and it can be hard for people to realise why or how maths is in any way useful.

Many people think of maths in school and think to themselves, well I don’t want to be X, Y or Z when I’m older and so I don’t need maths. This is, unfortunately, false. Maths is incredibly useful and so important in our modern lives.

Basically every technology we use today relies on maths. Phones, computers, the internet, Amazon, the stock market, computer games, sports analysis, etc – all of these rely heavily on the use of maths.

I think that people don’t realise how widespread maths is and how much we actually rely on it. This is definitely something I have had to explain to my friends and family who think that the only thing you can do with maths is teach it.

Even in my own research, people don’t understand how maths could be useful in making a device that images parts of the body to scan for tumours – when, in reality, it is solely maths that makes any of these things possible. Everything in life is a problem that can be represented by an equation and thus everything in life is a problem that can be solved by maths.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

I think that the public has become a lot more aware of science in the past few years due to Covid-19. I believe that scientists have always been pretty bad at communicating to the public the benefits of science and most people are unfamiliar with the scientific process.

Many people hear, ‘Scientific research has been done on X and it has shown Y’, and they think of morally grey figures lurking over test tubes and pipes filled with bubbling liquids in a tower. This is of course not how modern science works.

Before the pandemic, a lot of people thought of science as something cool and fun to study but didn’t know why it was useful and I think that the pandemic changed that. I think people started to notice how research into things like virology and hygiene were important.

We were very lucky in Ireland that people trusted the efficacy of the vaccines and their adoption was widespread, but in a lot of places around the world this was not the case. People were suspicious of the vaccines and this came mostly, in my opinion, from a lack of understanding and mistrust.

This is something science really needs to work on as it is so important that the public is behind science, particularly when it comes to things like climate change, pandemics and other such important subjects.

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