In Memoriam: Graham C. Wiggins, DPhil

In loving memory of

Graham C. Wiggins, DPhil


Director of RF Engineering Core, NYU Langone Medical Center
Senior Research Scientist, Center for Biomedical Imaging
Principal Investigator, CAI2R
Engineer, Scientist, Mentor, Musician, Colleague, and Friend

Dr. Graham Wiggins became known in the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) science community for building record-breaking, dense radio-frequency (RF) detectors and for employing innovative geometries to place multi-element arrays as close to the imaged anatomy as possible. His 23-element head array based on a pattern of polygons similar to that of a soccer ball, outperformed clinically available hardware by delivering greater signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and enabling accelerated acquisition of higher-resolution brain images. A 96-element array based on the geometry of Carbon-240 fullerene followed, described in Popular Science as a “marriage between Trojan battle gear and Medusa” that could “visualize the brain at a resolution six times that of a conventional MRI and up to 10 times as fast.” Scientific papers documenting both devices have amassed hundreds of citations.

Dr. Wiggins wearing the close-fitting 96-element head array of his making. Image from: "Bright Ideas for Better Brains" Popular Science, Oct 2007, Vol. 271 Issue 4, p45-46.

This pioneering work, performed in Dr. Larry Wald's lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, also attracted the attention of Dr. Daniel Sodickson, then on the lookout for an outstanding scientist to set up a world-class RF laboratory at the Center for Biomedical Imaging at NYU. After some courting, Dr. Wiggins signed on, bringing with him a unique mix of playful creativity and ironclad standards.

Dr. Wiggins (right) with Dr. Sodickson at a parallel imaging workshop in 2009.

As director of the RF engineering core, Dr. Wiggins assembled and led a team in ideation, design, and evaluation of hardware. He was a hands-on, comb-through-the-data investigator—one was more likely to find him ironing circuits, assembling models, or running experiments on the ultra-high-field 7T MRI scanner than seated in his office. He championed rationality and scientific rigor in a field largely considered an art, in which building a new instrument doesn’t always mean building a better one. (Graham’s comment on diffuse standards was that one could acquire an image with a coat-hanger.) He expected his protégés to work as methodically as he did. He could go as far as to invite himself to the the lab of a candidate to the RF core in order to personally inspect the interviewee's craftsmanship. His focus on quality could make him unyielding, but it also attracted a formidable group of scientists and engineers from industry and other academic institutions to NYU, not to mention students, where a “Wiggins way” of coil design and evaluation was taking shape.

Dr. Wiggins in the RF lab at NYU (note the polyhedral RF transmitter prototype on the bench along with signature green tape ready for deployment).

Although exacting, Dr. Wiggins was driven neither by dogma nor by captious realism—he was a rationalist remarkably willing to consider divergent ideas, as long as they passed through the thicket of counterexamples and logical consistency tests he would subject them to. If a wild idea could make it through what colleagues called a “Graham inquisition,” Dr. Wiggins would pursue it with giddy excitement and signature thoroughness. In this vein, the RF core lent years of effort to the construction of a 124-element detector array that could be hidden behind the bore of an MRI scanner, far from a patient’s body (a design diametrically opposed to that of the anatomy-hugging dense arrays that Graham had pioneered). If successful, the so-called bore liner would dramatically improve patient comfort and streamline the flow of clinical work by eliminating the need for anatomy-specific RF coils, but despite promising simulations and early models, the device ultimately failed, leaving the team with valuable lessons and what is sometimes affectionately referred to as large, expensive paperweight (on permanent display in the RF lab at NYU).

The bore liner.

Meanwhile, pursuit of such moonshots did not distract Dr. Wiggins and his team from regularly building exemplary medical devices for daily delivery of care throughout the medical center, evincing a dual commitment to clinical practice and technical development rarely balanced by research scientists. Unsuccessful investigations also didn’t dampen Dr. Wiggins’s ambition to understand and build ultimate high-performance detectors and transmitters. Not satisfied with the traditionally incremental approach in which new RF coils merely improved on the old, he sought, together with colleagues at NYU, to derive the properties of an ideal RF coil from Maxwell’s theory of electrodynamics. Much of his team’s investigative work over the last five years has been devoted to formulating an “optimality principle” that would describe the limits of maximum coil performance and set a standard against which physical devices could be engineered and evaluated. He presented this work alongside Dr. Sodickson at the 2016 Gordon Research Conference.

Dr. Wiggins (center right) and Dr. Sodickson presenting research on ideal current patterns at the Gordon Research Conference in 2016.

Before becoming a master RF engineer, Dr. Wiggins was better known as Dr. Didg, a musician who merged the sound of the aboriginal didgeridoo with rock and jazz. Having taken an interest in the didgeridoo in college, he soon studied the physics of its sound, learned to play it, and traveled to Australian native tribes to learn more about its origins. By the time he obtained a doctorate in physics from Oxford, he had struck a record deal that would launch his music career, first with Outback, then with an eponymous group, Dr. Didg. In some respects, Dr. Didg markedly differed from Dr. Wiggins: the former was a performer, the latter an academic; one was loud enough for crowds of thousands, the other so soft-spoken that interlocutors routinely leaned in the better to hear him; one wore extravagantly colored tie-dyes and Hawaiian shirts; the other favored muted tweed jackets. But the two were also inseverably entwined. In the precision of instructions prescribing how to mike Dr. Didg’s instrument for a concert, or in the engineering of the first keyed didgeridoo, there was Dr. Wiggins. In the MRI experiment showing a didgeridoo player’s (guess whose) circular breathing pattern, or in the music workshops at the Gordon Research Conference, there was Dr. Didg. The two personas shone through with equal force, often to the delight of the people in Graham’s path.

Dr. Didg

One of the difficulties of doing justice to Graham in an arrangement of words is that there always seemed to be more to him. He was honest. He was playful. He was direct. He was gentle. He had a trenchant sense of humor (“Build a wall, make America great again” declared a note on his office door, showing a picture of the legendary wall of sound of the Grateful Dead.) He could be gregarious—he would instigate parties or brighten them by playing the keys or doctoring guests’ drinks (both an art and science in his hands). He would be fast asleep in presentations that failed to hold his attention. He was hard-headed and idiosyncratically particular about aesthetics (he hated the Calibri font—a default setting in PowerPoint to the chagrin of his students, but just try to talk him out of covering coil elements with neon-green tape). His attention to detail could rankle, but could also lead to discovery—a blip in the data he would not miss nor pass over. He was a tinkerer who kept trying new things, most recently developing trellis RF detectors that change shape to adapt to a patient’s anatomy. He was fair, granting his colleagues and students credit for their work—an important and not always given trait in academia. He was generous, helping get projects off the ground without regard for reward, as there often was none, and mentoring others without regard for time. And he was kind, fiercely rooting for his protégés in their careers and lives.

Graham (right) leading a didgeridoo workshop at the Gordon Research Conference in 2016.

Most of all, Graham Wiggins knew how to find and share joy. You should have seen him with a new prototype in the lab, or behind the didgeridoo or piano at a party, or encouraging mischief afterward; He will be dearly missed by those who assembled around him and those who crossed paths with him. Godspeed, Graham.

Graham, delighting the next generation at a barbecue.


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Philanthropic Support

We gratefully acknowledge generous support for radiology research at NYU Langone Medical Center from:
• The Big George Foundation
• Raymond and Beverly Sackler
• Bernard and Irene Schwartz

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