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A journey of brain science and discovery

Medical physicist Samantha Holdsworth's incredible career path

At an International Women’s Day lunch this week, Gisborne-based Matai Research medical imaging centre chief executive and research director Samantha Holdsworth talked about her career path. Mark Peters reports . . .

After more than 10 years in research at California's Stanford University, medical physicist Samantha Holdsworth realised she brought different strengths to the table, she told guests at an International Women's Day lunch this week.

Part of that strength was as a rural-town Kiwi in a Silicon Valley environment, she said.

“I realised how important it is to be a diverse organisation,” she said.

“Strengths are in differences, not similarities.”

As guest speaker at the Business and Professional Women Gisborne and Chartered Accountants Australia New Zealand co-hosted event, Samantha talked about her career pathway from Te Karaka to Stanford University in California and the University of Auckland where she made breakthroughs in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), and back to Gisborne.

Like many women she wore several hats, she said. She is senior lecturer in medical physics and advanced medical imaging at Auckland University, chief executive and research director of Gisborne-based medical imaging centre Matai Research, and a mother of three.

Kiwi smile and hard-working attitude a winner

Originally from Te Karaka, Samantha went on to study physics.

“After that I realised my real interest lay with helping people.”

She tapped the keywords medicine and physics into an online search engine which led to medical physics study, with a special interest in MRI, in Queensland.

“After my PhD I went travelling by myself through South-East Asia,” she said.

“I was a little bit lost.”

Stanford bound

When she visited her sister in Seattle she realised Stanford was not too far away — and that the university had a collection of sculptures by Rodin, her favourite sculptor. Invited to study at Stanford, Samantha found herself in the radiological sciences lab — and met her future husband.

“I showed up with my Kiwi smile and hard-working attitude, and I think that's what got me through Stanford.”

In her time there she found ways to improve MRI methods such as the development of the highest resolution “diffusion” image of the living human brain in the world at the time.

After two years of working in a Stanford basement she walked the short distance to Stanford Hospital where she met, with some trepidation, neuroradiologists, neurosurgeons and other specialists.

Her development of a method that enabled better stroke detection in the brain was a “lightbulb moment”, she said.

“I asked one of the clinicians ‘why didn't you come to us and introduce yourself?'

“They said ‘we thought you were too smart for us'. The funny thing is, that's what we physicists and engineers thought about the clinicians.

“Sometimes you have to get out of your corner and speak to people with different opinions and different ways of doing things.”

Samantha and a colleague shared a lightbulb moment while watching a TED talk about Eulerian video magnification. The technology amplifies minute movements in real-world videos. A person's head might seem immobile to the naked eye but amplified 10 times, the technology shows otherwise imperceptible head-wobbling due to the heartbeat.

On realising the method could be applied to visualisation of the brain, Samantha and the colleague immediately put it to the test. They found the method visualises brain motion as the heart beats, and shows the movement of the brain in ways never seen before.

In a heartbeat

This opened possibilities for non-invasive identification of obstructive brain disorders such as Chiari malformation (structural defects in the part of the brain that controls balance) and hydrocephalous, with the potential to expand this technology to applications in body imaging.

“We showed the method to a neurosurgeon who said he almost fell off his chair.

“This method had the potential to understand how the brain moves under pressure. We're now looking at applying this to brain diseases.”

After 11 years at Stanford, Samantha returned to New Zealand — where she has learned to balance her various roles.

One of her goals at Matai is the diagnosis and treatment of brain injury.

“In conjunction with my role at the Centre for Brain Research in Auckland, we're building a team that can outline pathways for early diagnosis and treatment. We have pulled together a diverse group.”

Gisborne-based medical imaging centre Matai has a research focus on concussion and heart disease — a major health issue in this region. Matai Research will also support other areas of research into conditions such as cancer, paediatrics, musculoskeletal injury, and kidney disease.

By July, a modular unit at Gisborne Hospital will house a 3-Tesla state-of-the-art MRI machine along with related software and hardware.

Samantha is optimistic about what lies ahead.

“This has happened because of relationships, colleagues, community support, by keeping going despite challenges and embracing strengths in other people.”

On April 15, leading national and international scientists will speak at a Matai mini science symposium at the War Memorial Theatre. The free event will start with drinks and nibbles at 4.30pm and the talks will run from 5.15pm-8.30pm. A student session will be held separately at 1-2pm.

THE TOP TWO INCHES: Photographed at a presentation last year, Gisborne-based Matai Research medical imaging centre chief executive and research director Samantha Holdsworth this week was guest speaker at an International Women's Day lunch. Picture by Paul Rickard
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TURANGAWAEWAE: Having gained her PhD in Australia, travelled around South-East Asia and studied at California's Stanford University Dr Samantha Holdsworth has found work-life balance back in her 'standing place', Gisborne. Picture supplied