PRISM Magazine - January 2003
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On Campus - Speeding Up Detection

- By Jane Rushmore   

By taking the digital-imaging processes used to inspect airplanes and applying it to the human body, two Rowan University engineering students have come up with a computer program that could speed up the detection of breast cancer. The software analyzes digital mammograms and automatically determines the percentage of breast density– an important component in diagnosing potential disease.

Shreekanth Mandayam, an associate professor in Rowan's department of electrical and computer engineering, knew that researchers at Fox Chase Cancer Center needed a quick way to process mammograms as part of a study on the radiodensity of breast tissue. Mandayam selected electrical and computer-engineering students Lyndsay Burd and Richard Eckert to develop a computer program that analyzes mammograms.

The students work with Fox Chase epidemiologist Marilyn Tseng, who studies the factors that effect breast density. Women with 60 to 75 percent radiodense breast tissue have six times the risk of developing breast cancer. Heredity, in comparison, only doubles the risk. Normally, a trained radiologist would carefully look over each mammogram to determine the amount of radiodense tissue. But by using the new program, the students can speed up the analysis and eliminate sources of human error.

To do the analysis, Burd first scans the mammograms. Then, using the binary template masks Eckert helped develop over the past year, the computer distinguishes between the outside film region and the inside breast tissue region of the mammogram. Finally, the program applies an algorithm to the breast tissue region and the computer instantly calculates the percentage of radiodense breast tissue. The whole process takes only a few seconds.

Burd and Eckert are currently working with Mandayam to test the accuracy of the software. They take a material called BR-12 that has optical characteristics similar to typical breast tissue and obtain a mammogram of it called an "artificial breast phantom." Based on the thickness of the BR-12 they predict the radiodensity of the phantom and then compare it to the software's results.

It will take a few upgrades for the technology to supersede human analysis. Right now the program can only tell if there is radiodense tissue in the breast–not precisely where it is. So for their next challenge, Burd and Eckert will try to find a way for the computer to pinpoint the location of the suspect tissue.


Fresh Air

Four undergraduate students at the University of Arizona are taking engineering out of the classroom and into the community. Two computer engineering majors, Cesar Ramirez and Jaime Maldonado, systems engineering major Jason Wold, and civil engineering major Stephen Rowland are building an air-quality monitor for the city of Nogales. The struggling town sits on the border between Arizona and Mexico, about an hour away from the university.

The project, which the students call NogAir, was born out of the Ambos Nogales Re-vegetation Partnership—a community organization aimed at reducing erosion, dust, and air pollution through water harvesting and planting new vegetation. Rowland says Nogales is similar to most border towns. "The houses look like shacks. They're stacked up one on top of another, all the way up the hillside. The people are so friendly though. It almost feels more like a community than Tucson." It was the community aspect of the project that appealed to Rowland in the first place. "I thought working with a community would be better than building some little gadget for a huge corporation that would never end up using it anyway."

The Nogales community will use the monitor to determine how much dust is in the air. Vehicle emissions, garbage burning, unpaved surfaces, and dust from erosion all contribute to the amount of particulate matter that the NogAir device will monitor.

Already-existing EPA-approved monitors on the market cost about $3,000. The challenge for the students is to create an alternative monitor that's within their budget. Meredith Aronson, the students' professor from the department of materials science and engineering, says, "One of the technical constraints in the case of working with a community is cost, and it's those constraints that make the project technically challenging."

In fact it's the technical constraints of the project that the students are immersed in at the moment. "Right now we're worrying about things like pump sizes and how to monitor air flow," Rowland says. "But if we can make the monitor affordable enough for the community to use it, that will give me a really good feeling after all the hard work we've put into it."


Jane Rushmore is a freelance writer based in Buffalo, N.Y.
She can be reached at

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