Q&A with David Blodgett, Chief Scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Research Lab

Q&A with David Blodgett

David Blodgett is Chief Scientist for the Research and Exploratory Development Department at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. In this interview, David gives us a closer look at what he does as Chief Scientist, how he came to work in remote sensing and advanced imaging, why collaboration and having a diverse team is essential, and what he would say to those interested in pursuing a similar field.


What is the focus of your work?

David Blodgett: As Chief Scientist for the Research and Exploratory Development Department at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL), I oversee a lot of research and track quality to predict impact and ensure the research has long-term liability. I also do a lot of research myself and am heavily involved in general optical imaging and remote sensing, which is predominately my background.

For about the last five years, I’ve been leveraging that background in remote sensing in the areas of neuroscience and neuroimaging. I’ve been working with a wide range of staff at APL, scientists and engineers, to pull together advanced imaging techniques. At the same time, I’ve been working with researchers at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in the Department of Neurology who are also helping when it comes to advanced imaging techniques.

When you say remote sensing, what types of applications are you referring to?

David Blodgett: The applications I’m referring to might be very different than what most people think of when it comes to brain imaging. For example, I led a group where we did what’s called, airborne remote sensing. I’m talking distances of kilometers or tens of kilometers and even more. We were taking images of the ground trying to see through the trees to find hidden objects. Essentially, we did 3-dimensional Lidar imaging. We did a lot of processing and algorithms to develop and bring those systems out into the real world which is where a lot of my background has been.

Could you describe a few real-world applications for remote-sensing?

David Blodgett: Let’s say you were trying to take images of the ground to find out where flood planes were and get an accurate measurement of the ground elevation. And let’s say you wanted to know if a flood was likely to occur if a river rises to a certain height. A lot of times, it’s very difficult to figure out the contour of the ground with trees and the like in the way. So, taking a high-resolution image of the area through the trees allows for better assessment as to what’s going on in those areas and whether or not a flood is possible or imminent.

How did you get involved in this type of research?

David Blodgett: I actually received my Ph.D. in Material Science. I did nondestructive evaluation, did a lot of materials characterization and used optical and acoustic techniques to characterize the properties of materials. It’s actually funny because you can look at that area and what you’re looking at is microns of resolution and materials characterization, but the techniques that are being used in material science can be expanded, whether I’m in an aircraft, or working at tens of kilometers of distance. It’s always about working toward the best theoretical resolution you can get. Whether your target is millimeters, kilometers or centimeters away, it’s always about fighting the same battle of getting the highest quality image possible.

It appears that a strong understanding and background in Material Science is beneficial when it comes to neuroscience. Is that true?

David Blodgett: Yes, that’s very true. I’ve done a lot of work in characterizing materials, understanding what their optical and scatter properties were, and how best to use these kinds of things. Some of the remote sensing actually scales in really well here because if you’re trying to look through the atmosphere, you have to look through all the scatter and how does that degrade your image performance? Or, if you’re trying to take an image underwater, you have to deal with the scattering that comes from all the particulates in the water. My joke is always going to be, you will have scattering problems at anywhere from tens of kilometers in the atmosphere to hundreds of meters in the ocean to millimeters in tissue. It’s all the same. It just depends on what area you are working in.

Do you have a lot of engineers that work with you on your team?

David Blodgett: We do. We actually have quite a diverse team working with us which is a lot of fun. APL has a little over 6,000 people working here which leads to a wide variety of skill sets. The team of folks I work with includes optical physicists, engineers, RF electrical engineers, folks that do signal and image processing, engineers that are also neuroscientists, and finally, the clinicians up at the hospital. We really do have a diverse team which I think is the best way to get a good answer because everyone is looking at things from a slightly different perspective based on their formal training. That in turn leads to great collaboration giving you the best chance at finding an elegant solution which is always what you’re looking for.

Are there specific ethical concerns that you need to consider when doing your work?

David Blodgett: For the things I’ve done in the past, there’s never been ethical issues. For example, if you’re imaging the ground or the bottom of the ocean, there’s no concern for ethics. I have done very little work in the area of biometrics where you’re doing facial recognition which is where ethics really come into play. That being said, I have done work that involved iris imaging which did lead to IRB approvals to ensure the data was handled correctly. We are well-versed in that process at APL because we do that kind of work often and because of our tie with Johns Hopkins University and the Medical School.

If you had one piece of advice to give a young person today, what would that be?

David Blodgett: That’s funny that you ask that. I was at a conference this summer and afterwards was approached by a father and son who wanted to talk about the son’s future. The son was getting ready to start college and was interested in doing work with prosthetic limbs in the future. The father said, “Does my son need to get a degree in neuroscience?” I told him, “No. At this point, any of these things we’re exploring are really multidisciplinary. If you love mechanical engineering, you should do that. If you love optics, you should do that. You can do signal and image processing. It doesn’t matter. You can get your formal training in what you’re passionate about and then bring your knowledge and background to form a truly diverse team which is what everyone has come to realize is what we need.” You don’t want just an optics person working to solve these problems. Even just the difference between someone that’s formally trained as an engineer and someone that’s formally trained as a physicist will bring different views to the table. I had an office mate that was a physicist and I was convinced I had thought of everything when working on certain projects. Then, I’d talk to him and he’d bring up two or three things I had completely overlooked. It always drove me crazy but also made me very happy to talk to him because it meant that, between the two of us, we most likely covered everything we needed to be concerned about. In short, pick something you are passionate about and it will be far more enjoyable for the rest of your life while you are pursuing that career.