What A Scientist Really Looks Like

Albert Einstein photograph
Courtesy of Sebastian Niedlich via Creative Commons.

The stereotypical  image of a scientist looks something like Albert Einstein, an older white man with either wild hair or almost none. The media often reinforces this image of a “mad scientist” in a white lab coat. But in reality, scientists are just a diverse group of people that mostly look and act like everyone else.

This scientist stereotype has been informally studied by at least two major scientific laboratories, Fermilab and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. About 12 years ago, a group of seventh graders came for a regular field trip to Fermilab. Few young people have ever knowingly met a scientist. So Fermilab had these students draw and describe what they thought a scientist looked like, both before and after going on the tour. While at Fermilab, the students met a diverse selection of real life scientists, including speaking in small groups with a typical white male, a young female and an African American male physicist. Before their field trip, the students mostly drew the stereotypical white man wearing a lab coat. However, their drawings after the tour were much more diverse and casually dressed.

Such studies have inspired a small group of people to demonstrate what a scientist is really like. Also inspired by Science Online 2012, they recently created a website where scientists can post a photograph and short description of themselves. Their hope is to challenge the stereotypical perception of a scientist. If you are a scientist and interested in joining their efforts, you can easily submit your photograph to be uploaded on their “This Is What A Scientist Looks Like” home page. However, I hope everyone enjoys the ever-expanding collection of photographs.

PET Imaging — Not for Cats or Dogs

PET ring drawingAs a medical imaging researcher, I notice when medical imaging technologies are mentioned by popular news media or medical-themed television shows. Lately I’ve been seeing PET imaging mentioned more frequently, including on TV shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy. This probably just reflects the fact that dramatically increasing numbers of PET scans are being performed in real life in clinics and hospitals. So what is PET imaging? Funny that you ask, because I just happen to do research in this field.

In this context, PET stands for Positron Emission Tomography. During a PET scan, a trace amount of biologically-active, radioactive drug is injected into the patient’s vein. The drug localizes somewhere in the patient, depending on the metabolic properties of the selected drug. The drug then emits a positron (anti-particle of the electron), and the positron annihilates with an electron in the patient’s body. The resulting energy forms gamma ray pairs that pass through the patient and are detected by the PET scanner. These detected gamma ray signals are used to create a 3-D volumetric image or picture of the drug’s concentration in the body.

PET imaging technology is unique because it images a patient’s metabolism, whereas most other medical imaging techniques measure anatomical structure. For example, X-ray CT or MRI scans can be used to identify a tumor because they show the patient’s anatomy in detail. However, PET imaging can identify if the tumor is benign or cancerous, by measuring whether or not the tumor takes up the radioactive drug. In reality, you’d really like to know both though — detailed anatomical structure and metabolic function. Recent work has demonstrated the increased clinical diagnostic value of fusing imaging technologies based on function (e.g., PET, SPECT or functional MRI) with those based on structure (e.g., CT, MRI, or ultrasound). As a result, PET and CT scanners are now typically combined into a single gantry system, so that images can be taken from both devices sequentially during a single procedure.

Since PET measures metabolism instead of anatomical structure, it is mostly used to image organs whose size or shape does not indicate whether they are functioning properly, such as the brain or heart. It is also used to diagnose diseases that exhibit an abnormal metabolism, such as cancer.

Stay tuned this week when I discuss some Alzheimer’s research that utilizes PET imaging.