PhD candidate navigating life and the lab

Special to Western News

Ian Connell, a Medical Biophysics PhD candidate, focuses his research on improving the imaging capabilities of radiofrequency (RF) coils, the ‘antennae’ of the MRI system that transmit and receive radiofrequency signals to and from the patient. He is also a national-level rower and a member of Western’s varsity rowing team.

Ian Connell, a Medical Biophysics PhD candidate, is just as at home on the open water as he is in the imaging lab.

“I like the competitive nature of rowing and academics,” Connell said. “Being a grad student at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry has given me the flexibility to combine my interests and remain competitive in the areas I’m passionate about.”

The 25-year-old is a national-level rower and a member of Western’s varsity rowing team. His enthusiasm and dedication for the sport are impressive – Connell trains two to three times per day at Fanshawe Lake, on the eastern limits of the city of London.

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But his athletic prowess on the water doesn’t take away from his success as a trainee with the Department of Medical Biophysics. Under supervisor Schulich professor Ravi Menon, Connell works with the 7-Tesla MRI scanner at Robarts Research Institute.

Connell is improving the imaging capabilities of radiofrequency (RF) coils, the ‘antennae’ of the MRI system that transmit and receive radiofrequency signals to and from the patient.

“My research allows the RF coils, or antennae, to work together in a more cohesive manner, so we can image the brain better,” he explained. “We want to have some sort of way of making sure the coils only talk to the brain, not to each other.”

In order to accomplish this, Connell developed a magnetic wall to isolate the RF coils from each other. He worked on everything from the theoretical approach – the math and physics that go into the design – to the physical construction and application of the new coil.

There is currently a provisional patent on the project and he hopes manufacturers will begin selling the specialized coil for clinical use and research facilities.

Originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Connell studied undergraduate engineering physics at McMaster University, with a sub-specialty in nuclear engineering. His intention was to pursue a career in the nuclear industry.

But a few months before graduation in 2011, the Fukushima Diiachi nuclear disaster occurred in Japan and he was compelled to reassess his career plans. He soon realized he wanted to be part of a less controversial and more rewarding field.

“I chose to work with MRI, because it is physics in medicine,” Connell said. “There’s a connection to people, more of a direct impact. I know I’m toiling away for a reason.”

The Robarts trainee is also toiling away at rowing with a purpose. His sights are set on the U.S. Nationals in July and the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in August. He’s also considering a run for the Pan-Am Games national team.

“My rowing days aren’t over yet,” he said.