An interview with John Viator

We’re excited to continue our series of posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our next interview is with John Viator, an associate professor of Biology Engineering and Dermatology at the University of Missouri. View his project, called “Listening for cancer: Early detection using laser ultrasound.”

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research interests.

My research field is biomedical optics, that is, the uses of light to improve human health.  Most of my work involves lasers.  In fact, using rapidly pulsed lasers I can induce a photoacoustic effect, a laser induced ultrasound.  This area is my particular specialty and is used in my current Petridish.org project.

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist? What inspired you to research cancer specifically?

I’ve always been interested in science for about as long as I can remember.  Ever since high school, though, I think I’ve been most attracted to science that is based on strong, well developed mathematical principles.  My academic background reflects that, as I have degrees in physics, mathematics, and electrical engineering.

In graduate school I was interested in a lab that used lasers for problems in cardiology.  My interest in medical lasers naturally extended to cancer, since the magnitude of the problem is so large and I found that lasers offer special advantages, such as targeting the pigment melanin in melanoma cells.

Q: What has been the most exciting thing you’ve found in your research so far?

Interestingly enough, my Petridish.org project has given me the most excitement.  When I began my work in photoacoustics, I was looking at bulk tissue, such as large areas of skin.  I would use lasers to perform depth profiling and imaging of burn injury, vascular birthmarks, and tattoos.  I was amazed at how sensitive I could design a photoacoustic system, one that can detect individual cells, in this case, cancer cells.

Q: How have your experiences been with the existing science funding system?

I’ve been funded through the NIH, the State of Missouri, by industry, and by various non-profit foundations.  Getting funded seems more difficult than ever and timelines for funding are drawn out.  In some ways, the process can be a barrier to getting research done. Fortunately, I’ve had excellent support from the University of Missouri to keep my work going.

Q: Why did you decide to post your project on Petridish?  

Jack Schulz, the director of my research center, is active in many areas of science, including cutting edge ideas in science outreach.  He mentioned Petridish.org and encouraged me to give it a try.

Q: What is your favorite part of the work that you do?

While I am always excited about scientific research, I’m more interested in educating students to become scientists.  I’ve been a mentor to graduate students for a while, and I’m getting more involved with mentoring undergraduate and even high school students.  Getting smart, motivated young people is a force multiplier in laboratory research.  But more so for me, I find it exciting to help these students develop into scientists and medical professionals.

Q: How do you envision the future of cancer research?

My perspective on cancer research is more narrowly focused than, say, a cancer biologist.  While I am interested in basic cancer biology, I spend my time creating devices and instrumentation to aid in cancer care and cancer research.  Thus, I’m not sure how valuable my opinion is on cancer in general, though I can predict that cancer diagnostics will become more focused on molecular methods, allowing clinicians to become more specific in treating patients.  I don’t think we yet understand how specific and unique each person’s disease is.  I believe that new diagnostic and eventually therapeutic methods will be tailored to each patient individually to a degree never anticipated in the last few decades of cancer care.

To read more about John’s research, ask questions or back her work, view the project page:

Listening for cancer: Early detection using laser ultrasound

We have created a laser ultrasonic flow system to find single cancer cells in blood samples of patients for early detection of metastasis. This project will capture those cells for genetic analysis for improved treatment.

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