NMR Information Server

By Daniel Joseph Jones <elgaijin@ufl.edu>
September 18, 2001.

Interview with 


EIICHI FUKUSHIMA  is one of the leading researchers in NMR science today.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, and worked at Los Alamos for eighteen years.  For the past four years, he has been with New Mexico Resonance ("NMR"), a non-profit organization dedicated to the use of NMR in the study of fluids.  Dr. Fukushima is also the editor of /NMR in Biomedicine: the Physical Basis/ and co-author of /Experimental Pulse NMR: A Nuts and Bolts Aproach,/ and is on the editorial board of  /Journal of Magnetic Resonance./

J: What influenced you to take up the life of a scientist?

F: I don't know... it's got to be a combination of things.  I landed in the US when I was 13 years old, and had to learn English.  Science was much easier because I didn't have to know English as much as I would have to for history or literature, or something like that.  I don't come from a family of scientists.

I went to the University of Chicago and got a liberal arts degree, and studied humanities and natural sciences and social sciences, and somehow I must have liked science better.  It's like falling off a divide, and then things open up for you, and you just keep going in that direction.

J: What did you do before starting New Mexico Resonance?

F: I've been in NMR all my scientific career, and the longest I worked anywhere was at Los Alamos National Laboratory for eighteen years.  I went there as a post-doc and stayed on, and I did mostly solid-state chemical physics, and broad-line NMR.

Then, in 1985, I went to Albuquerque from Los Alamos, because there were a couple of really smart guys, one of whom was Arvind Caprihan -- I still work with him.  He started an NMR program at a private research lab, Lovelace, and he looked me up a couple of years earlier and asked about the possibility of NMR being used to detect blood flows.  He was an expert in measuring blood flows with Doppler ultrasound, but he didn't know much about NMR... he was an electrical engineer by training.  So he came up to Los Alamos to learn something about NMR, and we worked together for a couple of years.  In '85, they invited me over and I decided to join them.  In that group, we changed emphasis to using NMR for measuring flows, but not so much in biological applications, more in physics and engineering applications.  And that's basically what we still do now.

I was there from '85 to '97, and then we decided for various reasons to form our own company -- basically the group we had at Lovelace.  One guy, Dean Kuethe, stayed behind for scientific reasons because the lab we were at changed -- it's now the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, concentrating on respiratory physiology.  He was trying to develop an NMR technique for imaging lungs, so he stayed with them, but eventually he moved over to us.

So New Mexico Resonance started from the group we had at Lovelace.

J: How have you managed to run your non-profit laboratory effectively?

F: It kind of runs itself very effectively.  Basically, we kept the same kind of grants and contracts we had.  Maybe sixty percent of our support comes from government grants.  We're a public non-profit research company and that means that most of our support has to come from public sources, and we have to do research for the public good, so we're sort of like a university research group.  The other forty percent mostly comes from contracts, and most of those are with national labs like Sandia, so those are actually government grants that we subcontract.

The reason we have contracts, aside from the fact that the research needs to be done that way, is that it gives us a lot more leeway.  If you just had grants, you'd have to account for each person until you reach 100%, and then your hands are tied -- you can't get more money, you can't do anything...  whereas if you have contracts, you can actually work over a weekend and get the results done, and the people who give you the money don't care how you got the results... they just want the results.  So if you work hard enough you can actually save up discretionary funds, and then you can hire post-doc, and so forth.  So we have a pretty active post-doc program -- we have two post-docs right now, and we have maybe five permanent scientists.

Our overhead's quite low, something like half of what it used to be at Lovelace, and a lot of these grants, as everybody knows, grant you the total amount out of which the overhead comes, so if your overhead is lower you have more money for the research.

So we've done pretty well.  I think, in a way, we're lucky.  We do a lot of different things instead of getting in depth in any one application area like multiphase flows, or granular flows, or porous media flows.  But we're pushing the fact that we know NMR really well, and we can apply it to these different fields, either because we know about those fields or because we have very good collaborators in those fields.

We sell ourselves to the people who need the results by being able to measure a lot of different flow parameters in fluids that are just impossible for anyone else to measure... like if they're opaque, or if they're a messy combination with a lot of messy solids floating around, preventing them from using optical or ultrasound methods.

J: What potential do you see in NMR in the future?

F: That's a very good question, and we ask that all the time.  In our little area, it's going to be very useful because we deal a lot with people who don't use NMR for their measurements, like in the multiphase flow or concentrated suspension flow, or that kind of area -- that's very important -- and all kinds of processing: food processing, the power industry, pharmeceuticals.  By and large, they don't know about NMR.  In our little niche, we have a lot of applications coming up.

We do things like trying to figure out the physics of measuring fluctuations of velocities, where particles are banging against each other and we're trying to measure the kinetic energy of collision for those particles.  That's very important for people who do the theory of granular flow, and they can't measure it by any other means.

Speaking from our vantage point, there are a lot of applications of NMR that haven't been scratched.  The other area we are into -- and it's getting more and more major every year -- is out-of-the-laboratory NMR.  We've had a couple of projects where we developed low-field NMR devices with permanent magnets.  In our case, some of them are laboratory systems.  We just want to do low-field NMR for various reasons... for example, to make a magnet that has physical access better than a horizontal-bore superconducting magnet so that we could do vertical and horizontal flow experiments.

Other examples are to make an apparatus that you can actually carry around, and measure some limited amount of things, like if there's water a few centimeters inside a wall.  We've had inquiries from people in Japan who have trouble with hundred-year-old tunnel walls beginning to crumble and peel off, falling onto cars and trains.  They would like to know if there's water a few centimeters inside those tunnel walls.  Right now they just tap with hammers and listen for changes.  We've messed around with devices: our goal is to look deeper than others can, beyond a few millimeters.  We have a student working on an NMR apparatus that's going to look at flows in plants, and right now all the plant NMR being done is done in a laboratory magnet, so they have to pull the plant from the ground and regrow it in a tube.  We want to make something that you could take out and examine the plant while it's still in the ground.

Those are admittedly really niche areas for now, if you look at the entire landscape of NMR -- they're really minor.  I think NMR is going to stay around forever as a very useful diagnostic tool in medicine, and that area is going to get broader.

We go quite often to a meeting, the International Conference of Magnetic Resonance and Microscopy, which is sort of a misnomer because it's not necessarily microscopy.  There are all kinds of interesting applications -- if you could measure things that you couldn't until now, maybe the physics of very small flows in very small pores.  We're using gas NMR to measure porous media with pores of 10's of angstroms, where before we were using micrometers.

J: What is your proudest accomplishment as a researcher?

F: I really had fun doing a lot of research, but what pleases me the most is for people to come up to me at a conference and say, "Your book was the first I ever read as a graduate student, and got me going in the field."  I wrote this book with Steve Roeder more than 20 years ago, /Experimental Pulse NMR: A Nuts and Bolts Approach/, and it still is printed -- and I guess people still buy it.  People find that very useful, and that's very gratifying.  So I would say that I'm really proud of that -- we filled a void, something that was needed, so that was a unique contribution.  I figure that if I didn't get some experimental result, someone else would have come along and gotten it, whereas at the time and place where we did the book, nobody else had done it.

J: Who would you consider your greatest inspiration?

F: In graduate school, I was influenced a lot by a couple of professors.  I was in a very unusual NMR group -- it was led by a professor, Edwin Uehling, who was a theoretical solid-state physicist, and he didn't know much about how NMR experiments actually worked.  I think every one of his students was an experimentalist, and he was a very good physicist.  He would think of these great problems, and we would agree to do some measurements, and then we'd have to figure out how to do it.  Sort of by the lack of help we got from him, we really got to be good.  He was clearly a very good thinker, and we learned a lot from him.

The guy who really got me started, before I joined the Uehling group, was Henry Silsbee, an atomic and molecular beam person.  He didn't stay -- I joined his research group, and he was going to do beam magnetic resonance -- and then, for whatever reason, he couldn't stay at the University of Washington.  As I worked for him for one year, I fell like I really learned a lot about how to do experiments.

The third person who was really influential was another faculty member there, Hans Dehmelt, and he was already out of the NQR business.  He was already doing the atom-trapping experiments that got him the Nobel Prize.  He was a professor that kind of worked in a corner.  That was primarily a nuclear physics department, so people like Uehling and Dehmelt worked in obscurity.  Hans had this incredibly clear version of how physics worked.   One or both of them could always explain something to us.  We didn't know how special those people were until long after we left.

Dehmelt finally won the Nobel Prize and that opened up everyone's eyes, but some of us around him always knew that he was a very good scientist.

J: What advice would you give students interested in pursuing scientific research?

F: I think that they should have broad interests.  Scientifically, I think we're entering a period where, as a practical matter, it's very hard to get consistent funding if you're very narrowly focused.  Philosophically, I think there are a lot of good things to be said for being narrowly focused, but we've done well by knowing the technique well, and having our eyes open so that we would try very different things.  I think that paid off for us.

I have this kind of prejudice that the university model of research is going to get antiquated because there, despite the lip service, it's fairly hard to do a truly interdisciplinary research, strictly because of the structure of the departments and the research groups headed by professors.  The scientists we have have Ph.D's in chemical engineering, zoology, electrical engineering, aeronautical engineering, physics, and physiology.  You could never have a permanent group like that at a university, and we've done very well applying the results that the zoologists got to a physics experiment.  Dean Kuethe who joined us later was interested in imaging lungs, and developed the particular technique of NMR that worked so well for lungs that we figured we should try that for standard porous media, like ceramics.  That turned out to be a very good application.

I think you have to be sure-footed but nimble and able to take quick steps and respond to opportunities.  You have to be ready to solve problems in areas where you might know the solution in one area, but have to apply it to another area.  That's the kind of science that's going to pay off in the future, because that's how the problems in society have to be solved... and that's going to be true in NMR as well.

I would tell the student to get a broad outlook and a broad education, do a Ph.D. thesis and then do a post-doc in a different field.  You should be able to apply the knowledge from one place to another.

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