From the Big Bang to Breast Cancer

Dr. Michael Hobson is passionate about cosmology. But he realised that the techniques he applies to studying the heavens could have a wide range of practical applications, from medical scanning to the geographic mapping of Earth. Now as one of the first National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts (NESTA) Fellows, announced on 16 May, he has the opportunity to put his ideas into practice.

"Astronomy is quite mature in terms of its use of computer algorithms," Hobson explains. A Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) Advanced Fellow, he has used image reconstruction algorithms to obtain the strongest images available of the afterglow of the big bang. "My idea is to apply techniques from what's often seen as an esoteric subject," he says, and these new applications will allow "cross-fertilisation between astronomy and other areas of science where image enhancement would prove useful." It all started when he was put in touch with some biologists who were using confocal microscopy to look at pollen grains. Their images needed de-blurring, and Hobson was able to get "accurate reconstructions in a little over a minute on a laptop," a process which might take an hour on a much more powerful desktop computer using conventional technology.

It all sounds very exciting--but funding was a major problem. The research councils "do a very good job" of funding research within their remit, according to Hobson, but funding for interdisciplinary projects can fall between the cracks. Fortunately NESTA came to the rescue. Founded with an endowment of £200 million of lottery money in 1998, NESTA has approximately £10 million a year to spend on its aim of fostering "creative excellence." Its Invention and Innovation, Education, and Fellowship programmes aim to cultivate homegrown talent and make sure British ideas are exploited in Britain.

That's exactly what should happen as a result of Hobson's award. "If NESTA hadn't come along then either [the use of algorithms in other fields] wouldn't have been developed, or, most likely, they would have been developed elsewhere in the world," he says. Hobson is already in negotiation with a British company which specialises in image enhancement. In the meantime, though, he believes the project "needs 3 years of solid research at this stage." His award of £57,000 over 3 years has allowed him to recruit a Ph.D. student to carry out the legwork. As a research associate in the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, his responsibilities mean that it's impossible for him to devote much time to his interdisciplinary research. And he's found that "one of the best ways of developing a new idea is to work together with a Ph.D. student. It's an incredibly fertile way of pushing forward a project."

In terms of his own career development, Hobson is pleased that the award has "allowed me to branch out into a new area and given me a bit of a head start on anyone else." Only people working in cosmology are au fait with the techniques he uses, and being the first to apply them to other fields has obvious advantages. Other academics have succeeded in setting up spin-off companies which allow them to fund their academic research without the constant need to chase after grants. "That would be a nice situation to be in," says Hobson, but stresses that it's early days for him.

And Hobson shouldn't underestimate the technical difficulty of what he is trying to achieve, according to David McCarthy, secretary of the Society of Electron Microscope Technology. "His biggest problem is that in the biological world the images do tend to move," he says, compared to looking at distant objects in space where any movements are extremely slow. Nonetheless, "his work is very interesting," says McCarthy.

Clearly a great enthusiast for astronomy, Hobson is aware that it is often perceived as esoteric and not very practical by the public whose tax money funds his basic research. But "the people involved in it do have quite a range of transferable skills," he asserts, and they "have things to offer to practical science." This has been highlighted by his fellowship. The blurring function is well understood in medical scanning, which makes it an obvious candidate to benefit from his work, with the promise of the earlier detection of breast cancer, for example. "If you can get [the algorithms] fast enough to do frame-by-frame video cleanup in real time, that would be fantastic," suggests Hobson, though he thinks the cleanup of video stills is more realistic.

Perhaps you think a NESTA fellowship could be just the thing to give you the freedom to explore your ideas. Unfortunately it's not a simple case of putting in an application. NESTA has identified around 100 "nominators," experts in their field who can put forward the names of talented individuals who are then invited to submit a grant application. The names of nominators are kept secret--even Hobson doesn't know the identity of his fairy godmother (or father!)--so there's no point trying to apply selective pressure. Simply making sure as many people as possible know about your great idea would seem to be the answer, though the Invention and Innovation programme does have an open application procedure. But at least there is now a funding body that recognises the importance of interdisciplinary research, and is in a position to do something about it.

You can read about the other awards announced on 16 May at the NESTA Web site.

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