A Sharper Image

By Rob O'Connor '95
Managing Editor

Dr. Sandy Simon Halliburton '94 has grown accustomed to succeeding in seemingly strange situations.

After graduating summa cum laude from Hendrix with a physics degree, Halliburton went immediately to Vanderbilt University, where she earned her master's degree and doctorate in biomedical engineering.

"I was very nervous majoring in biomedical engineering at an elite university," said Halliburton, whose graduate classmates held engineering degrees from top-ranked schools such as Duke University and Johns Hopkins University.

Though the head of the biomedical engineering program knew of Hendrix and its reputation, Halliburton was offered only a 50 percent tuition remission for graduate school, which is considered "one step above rejection" in the field, she said.

Fortunately, she was awarded a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which included a stipend and three years of paid tuition expenses.

"I can credit [Hendrix physics professor] Bob Dunn for that," said Halliburton, who worked for Dr. Dunn as a research assistant. "He encouraged me to apply and helped me put together a winning application."

"That award obviously got me a little recognition when I started, but I still had a bit of an inferiority complex, coupled with being a physics major jumping fields and types of institutions," she said. "But by the end of the first year, I knew it was a great fit."

She also received a training grant from the National Institutes of Health during her time at Vanderbilt, where she was a member of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society.

Her master's thesis and doctoral dissertation focused on aspects of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This research, coupled with the emerging technology of cardiac computed tomography (CT), gave shape to her post-graduate career.

Since 1999, Halliburton has worked as a cardiac imaging scientist at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, where she develops and implements novel and state-of-the-art CT imaging and post-processing techniques for clinical cardiac studies. She also holds staff appointments at Cleveland Clinic in the cardiovascular medicine and biomedical engineering departments and serves as an adjunct professor in the biomedical and chemical engineering department of Cleveland State University.

Just as she felt in graduate school, Halliburton found herself to be unique in her new environment.

"I'm a technical person in a sea of clinical people," she said. "It's medically trained people (e.g., radiologists, cardiologists, nurses) and me, a scientist."

Halliburton helps medical teams understand the technical aspects of the imaging equipment so that physicians can get more diagnostic value out of cardiac CT images.

"As technology has evolved with new machine hardware and software, my role is to help integrate that into the clinical environment," she said.

Her primary research areas include radiation dose optimization, contrast agent dose optimization, dual energy CT, iterative image reconstruction, atherosclerotic plaque characterization, and coronary calcium scoring.

"Our research is very close to clinical application," she said, adding that her "army" of researchers generally includes one Ph.D. student and maybe a couple of research fellows. "Our interest is in some particular challenge in the clinical environment at the moment."

Halliburton has become the go-to person for education on new CT technology. She routinely gives "technical talks" to cardiologists and radiologists at medical conferences around the world.

"I speak all the time," she said. "My personal niche is the ability to communicate. It's what's given me a career ... As a liaison between the CT industry and physicians, I take complicated physics and engineering concepts and distill that down to language that clinicians with different training can understand. That's what I do."

Halliburton credits Hendrix with honing her communication skills.

"The thing I value most from Hendrix is my ability to write," she said. "I didn't think about it at the time, but I was writing mini-papers in Calculus I. Lab reports were writing assignments."

"I advise students writing dissertations. They're great engineering students, but their writing is often disappointing," she said. "There's an idea that engineers can't write, and that's supposed to be acceptable in some way? Not to me."

"If I zone in on one thing that has helped me in my career, it's the ability to communicate and take complicated things and make them understandable," she said. "If you can't communicate what you learn, what you discover, you might as well not even do the work."

Dr. Halliburton and her husband, Michael Halliburton '94, live in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with their two children.