Pursuing Bioengineering PhD to Affect Patient Outcomes through Research
Kevin Bardon, PhD’23, bioengineering, began his doctoral studies after a 20-year career of academic and industry research, with a goal to lead independent research. At Northeastern, he has jointly filed for a patent for a real-time immune biomarker detection system, is preparing to publish several papers on optimized photoacoustic contrast agents, and he presented his research at professional gatherings.
Kevin Bardon, PhD’23, bioengineering, grew up with a natural curiosity about many scientific topics, as well as a desire to help people. “As a high school student, I wanted to do mission work in other parts of the world,” says Bardon. “Then I realized I could use my love of science to become a doctor. I believed that would be the best way to connect with people and help them.”
But as Bardon embarked on his undergraduate career at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, it was another kind of connection that sparked his interest: the connection between human biology and chemistry. The two fields were more closely related than he had realized.
“Organic chemistry was challenging and new to me, but also incredibly fascinating,” Bardon recalls. “I realized that every living system is governed by underlying chemical processes and mechanisms. By understanding and manipulating that chemistry, we can accomplish critical tasks like detecting and treating diseases.”
That realization set the stage for Bardon’s more than 20-year academic and research career spanning biology and chemistry. Along the way, he earned both a BS and MS in biochemistry and molecular biology from UMass Amherst, as well as an MS in biomedical sciences from Tufts University School of Medicine.
Bardon has also worked as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital in conjunction with Harvard Medical School, focusing on analyzing biological compounds and reactions. And, at two biomedical start-up companies, he worked as a staff scientist on complex problems such as bioterrorism detection and prevention, neural modulation and cell bioelectricity.
“While my research over the years has been diverse, it all focuses on building a bridge between the two different worlds of biology and chemistry,” explains Bardon. “That’s what I’m passionate about.”
Research without boundaries
Over time, Bardon also recognized that he was passionate about leading independent research projects, instead of contributing to them as a team member. That’s what brought this interdisciplinary scientist to Northeastern’s College of Engineering to earn a PhD in bioengineering.
“I’d work with faculty members in the Bioengineering department and the College of Engineering at various points in my career,” notes Bardon. “I recognized that there was an openness and a collaborative spirit here that would complement my own research, which crosses traditional boundaries. It’s easy to talk and partner across disciplines. It’s easy to build bridges. No one is guarded about their work, they’re eager to collaborate. I definitely made the right decision in coming here to conduct my doctoral research.”
Bardon’s work at Northeastern has focused on improving light-based systems for biomedical imaging. While long-wavelength light is useful for assessing the human body, it’s currently applied to produce primarily superficial or very limited-depth images. By improving contrast agents—chromophores or light-absorbing compounds—used for biomedical imaging, Bardon is enabling these agents to be applied to photoacoustic imaging. This type of imaging uses long-wavelength light, but it also “listens” for acoustic ultrasound waves. Using photoacoustic tomography, medical professionals can leverage these waves to see 10x deeper and reconstruct three-dimensional images of deep-lying tissues.
“If you can use light to reveal 3D shapes inside the human body, in a completely noninvasive way, then there are a host of benefits for disease detection and treatment,” says Bardon. “You can look at three-dimensional images. You can see the margins of a cancerous tumor, or you can understand the parameters of a plaque deposit near the heart. There are many practical applications.”
While at Northeastern, Bardon has jointly filed for a patent for a real-time immune biomarker detection system he developed with faculty and student partners, and he’s preparing to publish several papers on his optimized photoacoustic contrast agents. He’s presented on his research both at Northeastern and at professional gatherings, creating opportunities to share his own findings, while also networking with like-minded scientists.
“Northeastern’s faculty, students, facilities and global commitment to innovation have been critical in developing these new imaging capabilities,” he adds. “When you’re talking to other scientists, that’s often when a light bulb comes on and you make an important discovery. You see a connection that you didn’t see before. Those are the kinds of moments I’ve had here.”
Bardon is set to complete his PhD in the summer of 2023, and he hopes to continue to improve people’s lives and address important health challenges through his work, though not in the way he originally envisioned.
“Growing up, I always thought of a doctor as a clinical physician, meeting with patients,” Bardon notes. “Now I see that’s a very limited view of the medical profession. There’s a whole community of physicians and scientists who are affecting patient outcomes through their work in the lab. And I’m proud to be part of that community.”