Change in Leadership at OBEL, The University of Western Australia
Even before I left the University of Kent in 1993, I had noticed how cool optical coherence tomography (OCT) was – and how similar it was to some of my own work on coherence multiplexing for communications. Kent was where I did my PhD, obtained my first faculty appointment, and hired my dear friend Adrian Podoleanu to work on telecoms – not OCT! Back in Australia in 1995, I arranged for Eric Swanson to speak at our national meeting – Australian Conference on Optical Fibre Technology – things were moving fast in OCT, but I was working…. still in telecoms. It wasn’t until starting my own group back at the University of Western Australia, that I could shift fields to biomedical optics and begin to pursue OCT. For the first few years, I had an office, then an office and a lab, then four honours students, then a PhD. Piece by piece, we all created a lab. I count the official start date as the arrival of my first postdoc, Andrei Zvyagin, in May 1998 – finally grant funded to work on OCT. My OCT journey had officially begun.
We named the lab the “Optical and Biomedical Engineering Laboratory”, but in my first experience of “realpolitik” academic style, this was deemed inappropriate, and a department committee was convened to consider our case. The committee recommended that the word “and” be deleted. Quite an intervention! So, we adopted the + sign and the Optical+Biomedical Engineering Laboratory was born. Over the next few years, from scratch, we built more lab spaces and created a major facility – in Western Australia, far from you all.
From inception, we considered a broad remit – from light propagation in tissue (e.g., modelling how aggregations of different sphere sizes altered tissue scattering through proximity and interference between scatterers), to technical developments in OCT (e.g., how to compensate dispersion whilst scanning in time-domain OCT, and how to use the frequency-domain scanning delay line as an achromatic phase shifter), to translational work (e.g., in mapping upper and lower airway anatomy in sleep apnea, and for chronic obstructive pulmonary conditions), and, as well, technologies complementary to OCT such as diffuse reflectance spectroscopy and holography. Later, we would undertake major programmes in needle-based OCT, and OCT-based elastography, focussing largely on breast cancer. Lastly, we explored parametric OCT imaging and lately have become quite obsessed with polarization-sensitive OCT – undergoing a resurgence, in our view.
Over the years, nearly 50 postdocs went through the group, nearly 20 PhDs, 100s of students and many collaborators and visitors – we were the first OCT group in Australia and one of the first in biomedical optics. Today, the OBEL diaspora has spread to many countries and new groups have been spawned, led by Steven Adie, Karol Karnowski, Brendan Kennedy, Robert McLaughlin, and Andrei Zvyagin. And talented others stand ready to play their part when the moment arrives. I hope I have helped instil in them all good practice in research – including generosity of spirit, openness and transparency, practising and valuing excellence, and attention to detail, as well as the importance of curiosity and creativity.
But all good things must come to an end – in January 2018 I moved to the University of Surrey, maintaining my leadership of the lab from afar, and transitioning to the leadership of Barry Cense. In January 2020, my affiliation ended, and in June 2020, my last student based at OBEL graduated. I cannot thank all OBEL alumni enough – each of you have helped paint a colourful and rich canvas upon which our research and lives have been played out.
Thus, a chapter for me has closed, but another has opened as I begin a new lab at Surrey. Meanwhile, I wish Barry and the new OBEL team every future success. “Optical+Biomedical” remains a wonderful field to work in, and OCT continues to play a leading role within it.