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The Faculty of Science Celebrates Its First PhD Graduate: Eric Strohm

By Megan O'Connor

Eric Strohm and members of his exam committee

from left to right: Anthony Bonato, Michael Kolios, Eric Strohm, Carl Kumaradas, Sri Krishnan, Stanislav Emelianov (University of Texas at Austin), and Raffi Karshafian.

On December 9th, 2013, Eric Strohm defended his PhD dissertation. It was a milestone for the Faculty of Science. In Ryerson’s newest faculty in over 40 years — now in its second year — Strohm is the first PhD graduate to complete one of the three doctoral programs that were launched in the fall of 2011: the graduate program in Biomedical Physics.

Strohm’s work focuses on the use of light and ultrasound to find diseased cells in the human body. His primary tool is the acoustic microscope. Using photoacoustic methods, he is able to direct a beam of light to a cell and determine its properties in the sound waves that are created.

“Think of a tuba or violin,” he says. “They make air vibrate in identifiable ways. Cells also have unique sounds. When a cell absorbs light, its temperature increases; this disturbs the area around the cell, which creates a sound wave. Our cells can be differentiated by shining different colours of light and listening to the frequencies of the sound waves they produce.”

Strohm’s work stands out in its use of innovation in photoacoustic technology. His supervisor, Dr. Michael Kolios, adapted the acoustic microscope to look at the morphology of single red blood cells.  No one had tried this before. Strohm has also been figuring out how to interpret what they hear—through quantitative analysis.

“Eric is the first person in the world to detect very high frequency (> 100 MHz) ultrasound emissions from individual cells,” says Dr. Carl Kumaradas, director of the graduate program in Biomedical Physics at Ryerson, “and then use this information to infer cell properties that relate to our health.”

During his graduate work, Strohm published papers in well-known scientific journals and presented at international conferences. Even so, the storm of media attention last summer caught him and Kolios by surprise. Shortly after they wrote an article (with colleague Elizabeth Berndl) on “Probing Red Blood Cell Morphology Using High-Frequency Photoacoustics” for Biophysical Journal  in July 2013, it was picked up by Scientific American and commented on in the journals Science and Nature. “We found ourselves giving radio interviews,” Strohm recounts, bemused. The idea that doctors might one day be able to detect diseased blood cells by a scan is very compelling.

Strohm admits that his original method has limited clinical value. “I’ve had to target each cell manually,” he says, pointing to the acoustic microscope. “It takes time to align each cell with the laser and take a measurement.” In a clinical setting, you need to measure the signals from many cells for the data to be useful.

“My thesis gave the proof of concept,” Strohm says. “Now I want to put it to work.” For the next two years, Strohm will remain at Ryerson as a postdoctoral fellow, completely funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, to develop a microfluidic device. He and Kolios have already submitted a patent. They’ve got their own startup company ready to commercialize their product.  

The device itself looks like a microscope slide fitted with small tubes. “Cells are streamed through the target area and probed with the ultrasound and laser,” Strohm explains.  “It’s similar to how traditional flow cytometry works, which uses light scattering and fluorescence instead of sound waves to create a pattern.” As cells flow through the middle of the device, Strohm will be able to measure them one-by-one in nanoseconds—thereby quickly accumulating a vast spread of data.

Strohm, who used to work in industry, loves the practical (and human) aspect of his emerging career. He sees the entire field in motion. This is fitting for him personally: in 2009, when Strohm finished his MSc in Biomedical Physics at Ryerson, the PhD program didn’t yet exist here. (The Department of Electrical Engineering let him start his research under their roof in 2010—knowing that he’d transfer once the new program launched.) Now, at the end of 2013, he has a PhD and a young family.

There are currently 17 PhD and 20 MSc students in Biomedical Physics at Ryerson—one of only three CAMPEP accredited programs in Ontario. Strohm, who was funded by an NSERC Postgraduate Scholarship, is “one of the program’s success stories,” says Kumaradas.

Another change is in the air. Kolios’s lab, currently in the old Kerr Hall, will be moving to a facility shared by St. Michael’s hospital. Strohm is very pleased about the upcoming move, where he and other researchers will share resources in a clinical setting.

The “old” lab didn’t discourage him, though. “Michael [Kolios] is great to work with,” Strohm says warmly. “He puts high value on scientific curiosity and thinking out of the box. And Ryerson made our work possible. Just look at the DMZ [Digital Media Zone], with its focus on innovation. There’s a great drive to help students become entrepreneurs. I was given a lot of help and advice on protecting intellectual property (such as patent application strategies) and on how to commercialize it and proceed in the market. These skills are all very different from scientific research!”

“I see many options down the road,” he concludes. For now, though, his focus is pretty clear.


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