University of Arizona

Professor Hao Xin's DARPA Contract to Advance Bomb Detection and Breast Cancer Screening

A UA research team made up of (from left to right) Tao Qin; Xiong Wang; Yexian Qin; Hao Xin, principal investigator; Russell Witte, co-principal investigator; and Pier Ingram will apply their new breast cancer imaging technology to bomb detection.The kind of mayhem caused by homemade explosives, both domestically and overseas, likely will involve high-tech systems that can identify concealed bombs from a distance. With a recent $1.5 million U.S. Department of Defense award, University of Arizona researchers will adapt their breast cancer imaging research for detection of embedded explosives.

Electrical and computer engineering professor Hao Xin, principal investigator on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, award, says the same advanced technology he and his colleagues have been creating for early breast cancer detection is now being developed to rapidly detect explosives in opaque, or nontransparent, materials.

"We started our research in 2009 with no funding but kept working because we knew it would make a huge difference," said Xin, director of the UA Millimeter Wave Circuits and Antennas Laboratory. "Eventually we had some internal funding, and here we are today."

The types of materials often used to conceal explosive devices -- mud and meat, for example -- share a trait with breast tissue: high water content, which makes it difficult to identify objects or abnormalities using existing ultrasound or microwave imaging techniques. Ultrasound images show a clear shape, but the properties cannot be delineated. Microwave images have contrast, but shapes are not clear.

The new hybrid technology will combine the advantages of high-contrast microwave imaging with high-resolution ultrasound imaging to detect improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The technology also mitigates the harmful radiation effects of traditional X-ray imaging and works without making contact with the material in which the explosive is concealed.

"We take advantage of both technologies and avoid the disadvantages to increase detection specificity," said Xin.

The 18-month renewable contract, titled Thermoacoustic Imaging and Spectroscopy Method for Explosive Detection at Standoff, sends microwaves into a target, which locally heats up distinct objects or tissues differently, then the quick thermal expansion generates an ultrasound image that is identified using a novel spectroscopic process.

Joining forces with Xin are his co-investigator, Russell Witte, assistant professor of radiology, biomedical engineering and optical sciences, and a member of the University of Arizona Cancer Center; Raytheon Company; the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST; and a handful of exemplary graduate students and graduate research assistants. One of those graduate students, Xiong Wang, recently was awarded the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Society PhD award for work in this imaging area. Raytheon Company is lending its expertise in IEDs as well as contributing a critical piece of equipment, a portable microwave power amplifier.

"A large research university like the UA allows people across disciplines to collaborate with industry on projects like this that have the potential to save lives on many fronts," said Xin.

Like bomb detection, breast cancer detection has seen myriad advancements in recent years, with a number of competing technologies emerging, but none has overcome the challenges associated with identifying the specific properties of abnormal tissue.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women and second only to lung cancer in leading causes of cancer death among women. With better screening and improved treatment, survival rates have improved steadily over the last 23 years, according to the National Institutes of Health. Nevertheless, the track record for breast cancer detection remains inadequate. Mammography, today’s gold standard for breast cancer imaging, fails to detect breast cancer in as much as 25 percent of cases where it is later confirmed. And, breast cancer is indicated in about one in eight tissue biopsies following abnormal mammograms, according to various scholarly and medical sources.

"The new research and imaging technique will help us better identify abnormalities in tissue and could significantly reduce the need for diagnostic biopsies, increase the rates of early breast cancer detection, and improve treatment outcome," said Xin.

Longtime IT Manager Wins Top UA Employee Award

Nancy Emptage (ECE administrative associate who organized the nomination), IT manager Leo Enfield (center), and College of Engineering Dean Jeff Goldberg celebrate Leo's 2013 Billy Joe Varney Award.Leo Enfield, College of Engineering information technology manager, sees himself as just a cog in the wheel of a machine that makes the UA one of the world’s great research universities.  But the fact is he represents the best of the best among University of Arizona staff.

At an institution with 15,000 employees, Enfield alone was singled out to receive the 2013 Billy Joe Varney Award for Excellence. The Billy Joe Varney Award is named for a man who dedicated three decades of service to the University of Arizona, who always put the larger good of the University before his own personal gain, always went the extra mile,and always made others feel special. The award is given annually to one UA employee who has at least 15 years of continual service to the University and who lives and acts in the spirit of the man for whom it was named.

Leo has shown identical qualities over the past 20 years," said College of Engineering Dean Jeff Goldberg. "He has worked hard, learned a great deal, and always put the interests of the University first."

Enfield was surprised by friends, family and colleagues on March 7 with the announcement of the award and an accompanying $1,500 check. Official presentation of the Billy Joe Varney Award and other annual awards for excellence will be made by UA President Ann Weaver Hart at a special ceremony on April 25.

"I’m so proud to be part of this organization. Winning this honor wouldn’t be possible without the wonderful people I work with both on and off campus," said Enfield. “I love my job and being a small part of the great things being accomplished by the people of the College of Engineering and the University of Arizona."

After serving a stint in the armed forces, Enfield began his career at the UA in 1988 as a lab technician in the electrical and computer engineering department and has served as electronics technician, supportsystems analyst, systems programmer, and computing manager. He is now in charge of technology management for all eight departments within the College of Engineering, on and off campus.

Enfield’s team says he would never ask them to do something he wouldn’t do himself, faculty members say he has kept up an almost superhuman pace, and colleagues say he is one of the most compassionate and professional people they have ever known.Leo Enfield and his family at the unveiling of Enfield's Billy Joe Varney Award for Excellence

"Leo is a warm, caring person whose credo is to serve others, often at the expense of his own personal priorities," said Jerzy Rozenblit, UA Distinguished Professor and former head of ECE, of the largely self-taught IT manager. "I deeply respect him, admire his qualities, and clearly see him as my peer."

His is a 24-7 job, and all too frequently Enfield is called on for assistance outside the normal workday and workweek.

"Even if you call him to fix your monitor, and the fix is simply turning it on," said Seth Gilchrist, a member of College of Engineering’s Computer Services Group, "when Leo presses the power button, it is not with condescension, rather it is with the empathy of a co-conspirator against the countless frustrations of technology." 

Enfield’s compassion, empathy and respect extend beyond the University, where he serves on the board of directors for the nonprofit Top Dog, which teaches people with disabilities how to train their own dogs to become fully certified service dogs. He also assists countless friends and neighbors with their computing needs.

Varney, who passed away in October 2010, wore many hats during his career at the University, including that of acting athletic director, vice president for business affairs and director of the Student Union.

University of Arizona College of Engineering