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Amy Oldenburg in front of a microscope

Physicist Amy Oldenburg developed an interest in biomedical optics because she wanted “to apply what I knew about physics to medical applications.” (photo by Kristen Chavez)

Shedding light

Amy Oldenburg is a high-performance driver, whether behind the wheel of her metallic midnight blue Nissan 370Z or in her Chapman Hall lab.

Using light and/or sound to capture images inside the human body, the associate professor of physics and astronomy conducts innovative biomedical research in a variety of areas from breast cancer to cystic fibrosis. She also visits the Virginia International Raceway in Alton several times a year to hone her driving skills.

“I always liked math, and my father was a high school physics teacher. I didn’t want to study physics just because of my dad, but it drew me in,” Oldenburg explained. “I’ve always liked fast cars, and there’s a lot of physics in high-speed driving.”

Her interest in biomedical optics developed during her postdoctoral training. “I wanted to apply what I knew about physics to medical applications. Bringing those fundamental insights to an area that actually impacts human health is tremendously exciting.”

She founded UNC’s Coherence Imaging Lab when she came to campus in 2008. Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) is a noninvasive imaging method that uses light to create multidimensional images of tissue, cells and other subsurface biostructures.

“We use infrared lasers to look at tissue,” she said. “Just as mirrors reflect light, cells inside your body also reflect light. We use that information to build a very detailed image not just of the surface of the tissue, but inside the tissue. If you’ve ever seen a pathology slide, that’s what OCT gives you, but without having to cut into tissue.”

She is skilled at imaging tissue “stiffness,” or viscoelasticity, since changes in tissue viscoelasticity are associated with disease.
She is skilled at imaging tissue “stiffness,” or viscoelasticity, since changes in tissue viscoelasticity are associated with disease. (photo by Kristen Chavez)

Oldenburg, a faculty member of the Biomedical Research Imaging Center, is an active collaborator with scientists across campus. The imaging needs of individual projects require her to tailor and develop specific technology and methods.

She is skilled at imaging tissue “stiffness,” or viscoelasticity, since changes in tissue viscoelasticity are associated with disease. For example, breast tumors have stiffness three to 10 times greater than normal tissue.

Viscoelasticity projects include: studying cell-to-cell interactions to understand the mechanics of early-stage breast cancer, developing and using a new type of ultrasound imaging to detect blood clots at a very early stage, and imaging the biomechanics of mucus-thinning cystic fibrosis therapies. In addition, she is working with UNC biologists on a new project to detect possible receptors on sea turtles that guide their precise navigation back to nests.

She also partners with UNC otolaryngologists to map the size and shape of the upper airway for sleep apnea and airway narrowing in pediatric patients. “Accurate pictures are important to guide treatment decisions,” she explained.

In 2014, Oldenburg received a National Science Foundation CAREER award, its most prestigious, to support her work in breast cancer.

As part of the NSF award, she co-directs the ADMIRES program (Assisting in Development and Mentoring an Innovative Research Experience in Science), in which area eighth- and ninth-graders partner with UNC mentors to conduct research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Oldenburg partners with UNC’s Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs on this effort.

“A scientific education gives you a way of critically evaluating information and the world and the ability to solve complex problems,” she said.

As a new member of the National Institutes of Health’s scientific review study section on Biomedical Imaging Technology, Oldenburg describes her research as “pushing the envelope. We’re always striving to create the next best imaging system but also to tailor it to a specific biological question we want to answer.”

By Dianne Gooch Shaw ’71

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