Physics Illinois alumnus recognized for lifetime of pioneering contributions to MRI

Siv Schwink

Eminent Physics Illinois alumnus William Edelstein (BS summa cum laude, 1965) revolutionized health care with his numerous pioneering contributions to the technology behind the life-saving medical diagnostic tool, high-resolution MRI. The holder of 49 patents, Edelstein is extensively published on the subject; he laid the groundwork for the design of current and future medical MRI apparatuses.

In recognition of his prodigious contributions to the field of MRI, Edelstein will be presented with the 2013 Alumni Achievement Award.
Professor Charlie Slichter, long-time friend and colleague, said, “Bill Edelstein has contributed brilliant ideas to the design of the modern medical MRI machine, starting when MRI technology was first being developed and continuing through the period of its widespread application as a diagnostic tool. Today he is still working to refine and improve this important, sometimes lifesaving piece of equipment. Bill is part of a great legacy in MRI out of Physics Illinois: Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield, who shared the Nobel Prize for inventing MRI, worked here as professor and post doc respectively. And Walter Robb, who received this alumni achievement award in 2001, headed the team at GE that developed their commercial product.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree in Physics here at Illinois, Edelstein earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in physics at Harvard University (1967, 1974). At Harvard, he completed his thesis under Professor Robert V. Pound, co-discoverer of nuclear magnetic resonance, for which the Nobel Prize was awarded in 1952.
Edelstein then travelled to Scotland where he completed two three-year postdoctoral research fellowships, the first at Glasgow University, the second at Aberdeen University. At Aberdeen, he was part of the team that invented the first MRI machine to make good whole-body images. It was there he invented the “Spin Warp” imaging technique, still in use in all commercial MRI systems today.
From 1980 to 2001, Edelstein worked at the General Electric Corporate Research and Development Center near Schenectady, NY, as part of a team that developed and commercialized MRI for GE Medical Systems. His contributions here allowed GE to dominate the commercial MRI industry for many years. In 1991, he was named Coolidge Fellow, the highest corporate scientific honor bestowed by GE.
Edelstein’s pioneering contributions advancing the technology of MRI are numerous, from pulse sequence optimization, to radio-frequency-coil and gradient-coil design, to circuitry improvements, high field imaging, acoustic noise reduction, and the NMR Phased Array. He was part of the team that produced the first high-field head image, and of the team that developed the famous “birdcage” coil, a mainstay of MRI technology for decades now, which made it possible to operate a stable, predictable high-frequency radio-frequency transmit/receive antenna large enough to enclose the human head and torso. And he contributed to the small-imaging-coil technology that made it possible to take detailed pictures of small body parts, like the eyeball.
After retiring from GE, Edelstein founded MRScience LLC, through which he continued to work on MRI as an independent scientist and consultant. He also served as a visiting scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and a senior research associate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Since 2007, Edelstein has held an appointment as visiting distinguished professor of radiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he is exploring methods for dramatically shortening the duration of MRI scans and reducing high-level acoustic noise.
 “The noise is brutally loud—often well over 100 decibels,” explained Edelstein. “Right now, people have to wear ear defenders, which is a problem. It puts people off and in some cases could possibly pose a danger to their hearing. It’s also a problem for functional MRI, where the scan is used to try to find activity in the brain, but the hearing part of the brain is already active. It’s also a problem for functional MRI where a medical procedure is performed while imaging. And of course, the doctors have to wear ear protection too—it’s really not good.”
“Our goal is to bring the noise down to 70 decibels or less, to a conversational level.
To apply this in a clinical setting, we would have to change various structural parts of the scanner, which would have to be done at an engineering company. Funding from a commercial source is an issue in moving forward, and I believe whichever company does this first will have a big marketing advantage.”
The second problem Edelstein is working to solve is the duration of exams.
“We should limit ourselves to a 10 minute scan, with 5 minutes to get the person in and out of scanner. The reason the scans are so long is really a bit surprising. If a doctor orders a CT scan, the whole scan can be completed in a few minutes—that’s counting everything, including injection of contrasts. But with MRI, there are so many different things we can do, so many different kinds of pulse sequences and image sequencing. Doctors will generally ask for several four to five minute scans that, with adjustments in between, may add up to 45 to 60 minutes. My thinking is that there is a lot of overlap in what’s going on.”
Edelstein said the answer to this problem isn’t straightforward, but with advances in technology and clinical practices over the last decades, he believes a solotion is on the horizon.
Edelstein has no immediate plans to retire and plans to continue his work on MRI as long as he is able to do it.
Edelstein has received numerous honors for his work in MRI, including the Gold Medal Prize from the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM) in 1990, Prize for Industrial Applications of Physics from the American Institute of Physics in 2005, and the University of Illinois College of Letters and Science Alumni Achievement Award in 2008.
He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and served on the executive board for the New York State Section from 1990 to 1998. He is also a Fellow of the Institute of Physics (UK). He is also a Fellow of the ISMRM, where he is a charter member, and served on the board of trustees from 1989 to 1992. He currently serves on the editorial board of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (since 1991), and Magnetic Resonance Engineering (since 2001).
The Alumni Achievement Award was established in 1957 to recognize alumni of the University of Illinois who have attained outstanding success and national or international distinction in their chosen business, profession or life's work, and whose accomplishments reflect admirably on or bring honor to the institution. It is the highest honor conferred on Illinois alumni, awarded by the Illinois Alumni Association on behalf of the University.
The award will be presented at the Commencement Awards Dinner on Saturday, May 11, at 6:00 p.m. at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center and again on Sunday, May 12, during the College of Letters and Science Commencement Ceremony starting at 10:30 a.m.  
Edelstein’s portrait will be mounted in the Illini Union among those of other highly accomplished Illinois degree holders who have received this honor.


Recent News

  • Events

A symposium honoring the late Center for Advanced Study Professor Emeritus of Physics and of Electrical and Computer Engineering David Pines is taking place on March 29 and 30 at the Institute for Condensed Matter Theory (ICMT) of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At the David Pines Symposium on Superconductivity Today and Tomorrow, 20 invited speakers will cover today’s most pressing problems and most promising directions in superconductivity. Some of the talks will also address other research topics that were of special interest to Pines, including Fermi liquids and topics in nuclear physics and astrophysics.

  • In the Media

Lose the jargon. Be willing to give away your best ideas. Quality is everything.

These are tips from a trio of physicists on writing a great article for Reviews of Modern Physics—the world-renowned journal of topical reviews that turns 90 in July. At a celebration for RMP at the APS March Meeting in Boston, the researchers offered advice to future Reviews authors and reminisced about the publication’s influence on their careers.

  • Accolades

Thirty-eight research groups at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been allocated new computation time on the Blue Waters supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This round of allocations provides over 17 million node-hours, equivalent to over half a billion core hours, and is valued at over $10.5 million, helping Illinois researchers push the boundaries of innovation and frontier science discovery.

  • In the Media
  • Outreach

Together with a team of five other physicists (the other interns in the lab), before entering the room I was handled information sheets covering some essential physics concepts laid out in a very digestible way. Indeed, the room, which is the brainchild of Paul Kwiat, a physics professor at the University of Illinois, is by all means not designed for physicists (even though it’s an absolute delight for them). It was created to provide an experience that demonstrates to the general public that physics is useful, permeates everyday objects and is, yes, fun.