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Blue Devil of the Week: Making the Invisible Visible through Imaging

Medical physicist explores new horizons of imaging

Dr. Ehsan Samei has explored new ways to use medical imaging to improve the lives of patients. Photo by Stephen Schramm.
Dr. Ehsan Samei has explored new ways to use medical imaging to improve the lives of patients. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

Name: Ehsan Samei

Position: Duke Health Chief Imaging Physicist; Duke University Professor of Radiology, Medical Physics, Biomedical Engineering, Physics, and Electrical and Computer Engineering

Years at Duke: 22

What he does at Duke: Whether it’s an X-ray, a CT scan, an MRI, an ultrasound or a mammogram, medical imaging is at the heart of patient care. Duke's roughly 500 imaging machines see around 700,000 to 800,000 patients per year. In addition to technologists and radiologists, Duke has around a dozen imaging physicists overseeing the use of these machines and ensuring that, across the entire health system, the technology and techniques are creating the most useful and accurate images. As the Chief Imaging Physicist, Dr. Ehsan Samei leads this group.

Dr. Ehsan Samei leads the Center for Virtual Imaging Trials, which uses cutting edge technology to speed up the pace of research. Photo by Stephen Schramm.Samei also spearheads research in medical imaging, seeing how existing technology can be used to see things in new ways. And as the principal investigator of the Center for Virtual Imaging Trials, which was created in 2021, he’s exploring the capabilities of using virtual patients and virtual machines to speed up the development of potential medical breakthroughs.

“The crux of the problem, both in the clinical domain and the research domain, is that imaging is an approximation, not reality,” said Samei, who received the 2022 Marie Sklodowska-Curie Award from the International Organization for Medical Physics. “It’s never a perfect rendition of reality, but an approximation. So the question I’m working on is, how much of an approximation is it, and can we make a better one?”

What he loves about Duke: Samei is grateful to have a strong network of colleagues who combine innovative ideas with the collaborative and hard-working spirits needed to push those ideas forward.

“What attracted me to Duke is that there are so many brilliant people here,” Samei said. “I feel that what makes programs and universities worthwhile isn’t the project, but the brilliance of the people who actually do the project.”

The  Photon Counting CT Scanner, added in 2021, increases Duke's imaging capabilities. Photo courtesy of Ehsan Samei.Most memorable day at work: In 2021, Duke became one of the few facilities in the world to acquire a Photon-Counting CT Scanner. For Samei, who had been advocating for Duke to add one, the chance to finally use it to help patients was a thrill. He recalls seeing images with a level of clarity and detail that he’d previously been unable to see. And when those images were able to help doctors diagnose patients’ vexing health problems, it validated the efforts put into bringing the technology to Duke.

“You can talk about photon counting and quantum mechanics and all of that stuff, but it only matters when you actually care for the individual and solve their problem,” Samei said.

Since his childhood in Iran, Ehsan Samei has enjoyed playing the flute. Photo courtesy of Ehsan Samei.When he’s not working, he likes to: Classical music, from such iconic composers as Bach, Schubert and Brahms, is one of Samei’s passions. He cherishes opportunities to see live performances, and chances to perform himself. Growing up in Iran, Samei began playing the flute, one of the few instruments small enough to play discreetly in a country where music was banned. More recently, he’s enjoyed playing alongside other musicians in semi-professional ensembles.

“I used to play a lot more, but now I just don’t have the time,” Samei said.

Something unique in his workspace: On a shelf in his office in Hock Plaza, Samei has what looks like a framed record. But a closer look reveals images of bones set within the disc. The item is what’s known as a “bone record.”Made in Soviet-era Russia, where western music was strictly banned, these bootleg records – often of jazz or early rock n’ roll – were pressed on discarded X-ray slides. A friend gave one to Samei as a gift.

Combining his passions of music and imaging, Ehsan Samei has a bone record in his office. Photo by Stephen Schramm.“This embodies many of my interests,” Samei said. “There's medical imaging in there. It has music. And I grew up in Iran during the Islamic revolution when music was banned, so I know that music in itself is an act of resistance.”

Lesson learned during the pandemic: Samei gained an appreciation for the periods of time that exist between tasks, meetings and events that define a day. Prior to the pandemic, when offices were full of people and most interactions were in person, these times were when colleagues could chat, or when minds were allowed to wander.

“It’s amazing how much life happens in the margins,” Samei said. “On the days when you’re going from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting, those margins are gone and your brain doesn’t have a chance to recalibrate.”

As an avid runner, Ehsan Samei has completed five marathons. Photo courtesy of Ehsan Samei.Something most people don’t know about him: Samei is an avid runner and has completed five marathons. One of those was the 2013 Boston Marathon, which was remembered for terrorist attack that claimed three lives near the finish line. Samei had completed the course and left the area roughly 45 minutes before the homemade bombs were detonated.

“Thankfully my family decided not to accompany me,” Samei said. “I was incredibly grateful for that.”

Is there a colleague at Duke who has an intriguing job or goes above and beyond to make a difference? Nominate that person for Blue Devil of the Week.