UTA math student earns National Science Foundation fellowship

NSF to support mathematician’s research to improve MRI data for medical procedures

Tuesday, Aug 31, 2021 • Linsey Retcofsky : Contact

Talon Johnson

The National Science Foundation selected a graduate researcher at The University of Texas at Arlington for its prestigious Mathematical and Physical Sciences Ascending Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (MPS-Ascend).

Talon Johnson, a doctoral student in the Department of Mathematics, received a three-year, $300,000 award to support his early-career research and transition to a faculty appointment. The fellowship will fund Johnson’s investigation of mathematical processes used for medical imaging reconstruction.

In collaboration with radiologists from UT Southwestern Medical Center, Johnson will develop mathematical methods to increase the speed of MRI data acquisition while also improving its image quality.

“For an MRI to gather all of the information a physician needs, a patient could be required to stay still for 30 minutes to an hour,” Johnson said. “That length of time can cause discomfort, especially for those who have injuries, as well as the very young and the elderly.”

Johnson also plans to address image blurring problems in MRIs, which are caused by several factors, including involuntary muscle movement, respiratory motion and technical difficulties. Blurred scans are difficult for physicians to interpret and can contribute to incorrect evaluations of a patient’s condition.

Jianzhong Su, professor and chair of UT Arlington’s Department of Mathematics and Johnson’s Ph.D. supervising professor, said Johnson’s research is highly innovative.

“Talon takes novel mathematical approaches to solve high-impact, real-world problems,” Su said. “He has developed a new mathematical theory and its algorithm to handle both faster data acquisition and image de-blurring simultaneously. His efforts will directly impact patient and provider experiences.”

As a condition of the award, the MPS-Ascend program challenges its postdoctoral fellows to increase the participation of people who are underrepresented in math and science fields in the U.S., including Black, Latino and Native American populations.

A portion of Johnson’s fellowship will be spent at the Atlanta University Center Data Science Initiative to engage undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented minority groups in data science. Johnson will also design and teach research workshops on compressive deconvolution, a concept related to how MRI machines gather data from patients.

“There are many barriers to STEM education for people of color,” Johnson said. “I hope to influence students’ opinions about their abilities to pursue questions in math and science and apply their knowledge to solve real-world problems.”