The Evolving Pattern that is Stella Atkins

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By Sharon J. Proctor, Ph.D.
Photography by Brad Stringer

Imagine your doctor having eyes like Superman's. What an advance that would be for medical science.

Superman has x-ray vision, infrared vision, and several other "visions." He can peer inside you and detect the tiniest atomic particles. A physician with that kind of vision would be able to see the first individual cancer cell form in a tissue, or spot the first altered brain cell that might signal a future of multiple sclerosis. In fact, doctors are starting to approach Superman's powers. And SFU's Dr. Stella Atkins is helping them do it.
For more than a decade, Atkins and her students have been improving the resolution of PET (positron emission tomography), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), x-ray, and ultrasound technologies, to facilitate the detection of early stages of Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, melanomas, and other diseases. But this group doesn't work on scanners per se. Their focus is the computer software that guides the scanners and interprets the scans. They want physicians to see the tiniest tissue changes inside a patient's body, the smallest deviations from the normal pattern, without invasive biopsies or incisions.

She wants to create a perfect image

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is her special interest. MRI produces a photograph-like picture of an ultra-thin slice (or cross-section) of your head, arm, or other area. Instead of light to "illuminate" the tissues, however, MRI uses magnetism and radio waves. Each tissue looks different in the picture. The problem is, the technology still needs improving. It's like looking at a slice of raisin bread and finding it hard to distinguish raisins from dough. Atkins's group is developing software that will enable the computer to "see" tissue details more clearly and to distinguish each tissue type.
"We look for patterns in the different tissues," she explains. "Each has a particular pattern of cell organization, behaviour, and forces acting on it, a pattern that's different from that of other tissues. We need to teach the computer to recognize these subtle tissue differences. That's our challenge - to convey our knowledge to a computer. We want it to spot abnormal or diseased areas of tissue automatically, areas that don't fit the normal tissue pattern."

She's also immersed in other technologies

SFU has always had an impressive array of top applied science and mathematics talent although faculty and students have traditionally been separated into different schools and departments. However, modern technologies don't lend themselves to such sharp divisions. Each embraces many disciplines. Medical imaging, for instance, involves computer science, biomedicine, electrical engineering, communications, mechanical engineering, physics, mathematics, and kinesiology. SFU would miss huge research and funding opportunities if its departments stayed isolated. So, in 1986, the Centre for Systems Science was set up to help researchers in different departments, who were doing technically related research, work together on projects. Atkins is its current director. She is a good match with her job because her professional life has been shaped by more than one science and technology discipline.
She grew up in England. "My father was an engineer; my mother, a statistician/actuary. So as a child I was keen on mathematics and read math books for fun. And our family played a lot of chess at home. We also had doctors in our family, including my great-grandfather and several cousins. I think everyone hoped I'd one day become a doctor, but I didn't fancy the night-call work. It's strange. Even as a child, I liked my sleep. I definitely didn't want to be a doctor."

She initially thought of a career in chemistry

Like most youngsters, Stella had a touch of rebellion in her that influenced her early career path. "My older sister was studying mathematics at university and I wanted to be different. Stupidly, I didn't do math, which I should have done." A high-school chemistry teacher, in fact, convinced her to go into chemistry. She chose Nottingham University, where Dorothy Hodgkin had just received a Nobel Prize in chemistry. The year was 1964.
"I wasn't a good chemist," she recalls. "I'd do a lab experiment, collect the distillate, and get nothing." Still, chemistry had its positive side. She liked working with chemical patterns. "I enjoyed looking at mass spectrometry data, where you'd see a pattern in the spectrum of a crystal and then look for the same pattern elsewhere." After getting her BSc in chemistry in 1966, she went to work for the Shell Refining Company as a chemical engineer. It was at Shell that she discovered computers.

She found computers much more interesting

In the 1960s, computers were massive. "I worked on an early IBM model, with paper tape," she recalls. "It was in a huge air-conditioned room. You punched holes in the tape. And if you wanted to edit the program, you had to cut and splice it. It was pretty crude." Crude or not, she was hooked. "I realized right away that I loved doing computing."
At Shell, she learned to do computer simulations of oil refineries and oil flowing through tanks. "The simulations were in the form of texts," she remembers. "I'd feed in data, such as the arrival rates of tankers and capacities of the refinery tanks. Then I'd put the simulated oil into the tanks and withdraw it at the rates of average withdrawals, making sure the tanks didn't overflow and that the simulated tankers didn't back up down the River Mersey."
Keep in mind that computers are basically mathematical calculators. (All software has a core of mathematical formulas.) So, doing oil-flow simulations enabled Atkins to use her mathematical skills. When she left Shell, she went to work as a scientific computer programmer advisor at the University of Warwick. She also began working on a master's degree in computer science, which she got in 1976.

Fate, however, took her in an unexpected direction

While she was at Shell, she did volunteer work in her spare time. "It was through an organization called International Voluntary Service," she says. "Evenings or Saturdays, a group of us would help decorate the houses of people who had no money or help take handicapped children out for day trips. When I moved to the University of Warwick, I signed up at the group's Coventry Cathedral branch." Atkins and other volunteers were in the cathedral one day, planning some decorating projects for local seniors. There she met a young man who was working on his PhD in business administration at the University of Warwick. His name was Derek Atkins - the same Derek Atkins who's now associate vice-president academic at the University of British Columbia. The two became friends, married, and finished their degrees. When Derek was appointed to UBC's business faculty, they moved to British Columbia.
"At first," says Atkins, "I worked in the forest industry as a computer consultant. I soon noticed, however, that my husband was having a lot of fun as a professor at UBC. So I decided I should get a PhD, so I could have fun as a professor, too." Instead of pursuing computer simulations, with which she had experience, she decided to study computer operating systems. An "operating system" is the software that controls everything that happens in a computer. Windows and DOS are popular examples. Stella Atkins got her PhD in computer science at UBC in 1985.
Through colleagues, she one day met the head of SFU's computer science department, Nick Circone, who invited her to the Burnaby Mountain campus for an interview. And when he offered her a faculty position in the computer science department, she accepted.

At SFU, Fate stepped in again

She soon met Ronald Harrop, another professor in the computer science department. His line of research intrigued her. Even though SFU had no medical school, he was working on the PET-scanning technology used to diagnose Alzheimer's disease. He was, in fact, collaborating with Pat McGeer's group at UBC and using the facilities at TRIUMF, near the UBC campus (SFU is a partner in TRIUMF). Atkins was intrigued by the idea of designing software that would enable computers to diagnose disease. She joined Harrop's medical imaging team in 1987. "I told him I knew nothing about PET scanning. And he said, "Well, join the group - nobody does." So we all had to learn the physics of the medical scanning technology."
Stella Atkins had found her true calling - a "medical" career that didn't have doctors' hours, and involved her two loves, mathematics and computers.

And she has spare time for other things, too

"Derek and I and our family do a lot of hiking. Last summer we backpacked for seven days in the Dolomites in Italy. We recently camped for a week at 7,000 feet on Mount Assiniboine in the B.C. Rockies, hiking up every day. We bike, cross-country ski, read, and enjoy music and opera. I like birding and gardening. And I like classical music - at the moment, Richard Strauss. Basically I like the patterns of nature, and audio patterns like oboe music. String quartets appeal to me. I like to follow four threads vertically and horizontally."