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April 20, 2017
Story by Mark Hornickel / Photography by Todd Weddle
At first sight, the cubicle farm where Northwest Missouri State University alumnus David McDaniel comes to work every day hardly seems like the environment one would expect to find a renowned physicist with more than 50 patents and the development of a revolutionary medical instrument on his résumé.
But that’s part of the unassuming presence McDaniel has taken on over 34 years at GE Healthcare. McDaniel, a principal engineer with the medical systems unit of General Electric Company, is the technical brain behind the global company’s PET scan machine.
Since devising the foundation GE needed to produce its original “Advance” PET scan during the early 1990s, McDaniel has shaped the architecture behind generations of PET scanners, contributing to electrical and software designs, algorithms, image analysis and the diagnosis of an infinite number of patients throughout the world.
Colleagues have called him “the go-to guy within the organization for as long as PET engineering has existed” and “the father of every invention in PET detection” since GE unveiled its first machine.
“I love solving problems,” McDaniel said. “The reason I wanted to go here and not in a research field is that I like the hands-on. I’m building. Construction. Here it is. There’s something useful. I’ve always liked the challenge. There’s a puzzle to solve.”
|Senior physics majors at Northwest in 1973 were, left to right, David Killian, Bill Jackson, Jim Jacobs, Harold Eck and David McDaniel.|
|McDaniel ran a tandem-style VandeGraaf accelerator as a graduate and doctorate student studying nuclear physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.|
|McDaniel, as a senior systems engineer with GE Healthcare, stands to the left of colleagues in 2006 during an inspection of a PET scan machine.|
McDaniel has always been a problem solver.
He put his hands to work and developed a solid work ethic while growing up on his parents’ Redding, Iowa, farm.
Science appealed to him, but McDaniel didn’t begin seriously considering it as a career possibility until he reached high school at Mount Ayr Community School, which honored and inducted him into its hall of fame last fall. There, McDaniel had the good fortune of learning from a retired Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor.
“He had degrees in physics, chemistry, mathematics and education,” McDaniel said. “By the time I graduated from high school, we had already done freshman physics and chemistry and mathematics.”
After earning his high school diploma in 1969, Northwest was McDaniel’s next logical step. The college was near his home and it was affordable. He fulfilled his physical education requirement by taking a 7:30 a.m. bowling class at the old alley in the J.W. Jones Student Union. He spent one summer cleaning floors in Roberta Hall.
McDaniel’s recollection of Northwest catches a spark, though, when he talks about the days he spent taking classes and conducting experiments in the physics department. The shine was still fresh on the new Garrett-Strong Science Building and the small size of the physics department allowed McDaniel and his peers to learn at a fast pace while gaining hands-on experience.
After NASA completed its Gemini space program, they acquired some of the equipment for their studies. They studied quantum mechanics and general relativity at a level normally reserved for graduate studies.
“We had basically one-on-one teaching,” McDaniel said. “It was fantastic. We blew through all the physics courses very quickly, and then we went into advanced studies.”
During the summer of 1971, McDaniel married Brenda Payne, with whom he grew up and attended school in Mt. Ayr. She worked in the financial aid office at Northwest while David pursued his degree. Their apartment became a gathering place for the “physics nerds.”
In 1973, McDaniel earned his bachelor’s degree in physics with a minor in mathematics and maintained a 4.0 grade-point average throughout his academic career at Northwest.
“I came out of Northwest with a knowledge and background in physics and mathematics that was unpassed,” McDaniel said. “It was a small dedicated group of mathematics teachers and physics teachers, and graduate school was easy because we’d been doing it for a year.”
McDaniel received offers to attend graduate school at Kansas State University, the University of Maryland and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He spent the summer prior to his senior year at Kansas State conducting physics research with the support of a National Science Foundation grant but opted for Madison because it offered more opportunity.
He made the most of his education at UW, completing master’s and doctorate
degrees in nuclear physics by 1980. He stayed there for two more years as a research associate in the physics department and then spent the 1982-1983 academic year as a postdoctoral fellow in radiology at the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston.
McDaniel inspects a PET scan machine in a testing bay at GE Healthcare’s Waukesha, Wisconsin, facility. McDaniel is responsible for designing the small detectors that line the interior ring of the machine.
|McDaniel sits on the bed of a PET scan machine in a showroom at GE Healthcare's Waukesha, Wisconsin, plant.|
GE hired McDaniel in 1983 to work at its Waukesha, Wisconsin, facility as a senior systems engineer in the then-new field of X-ray advanced technology engineering.
But at the same time researchers were priming another piece of technology to transform the medical field, and in 1989, GE called on McDaniel to join its new PET division as a senior detector physicist.
PET, an acronym for positron emission tomography, was rapidly developing from an experimental piece of equipment, and commercial technology companies saw an opportunity to make it more accessible while enhancing health care.
The PET scan is an imaging test that shows how organs and tissues are working, and it can be used to detect cancers and heart conditions. Patients are injected with a sugar-based tracer that enters the blood flow, and the scan measures chemical activity within cells.
That’s where McDaniel comes in.
The PET scan is no use without a detector that pinpoints two gamma rays shooting in opposite directions when a positron and electron annihilate. The resulting data allows doctors to locate abnormalities in the body.
“(The tracer) gets concentrated in muscles that are using sugar, such as your heart, and it gets in the brain, which uses sugar for metabolism,” McDaniel said. “Cancer, which is busy doing division, uses sugar. Tumors in the body light up like a light bulb.”
|The detectors McDaniel designs are just 4.5 centimeters and contained in dozens of modules lining a drum that the patient slides through for a scan.|
The detectors McDaniel designs are just 4.5 centimeters and contained in dozens of modules lining a drum that the patient slides through for a scan.
“Those modules generate the information for each gamma ray, including when it arrived and which crystal it hit, and how much energy it had,” McDaniel says.
The wonder of it all is not lost on McDaniel, who still keeps the slide rule he used as a student at Northwest. Handheld calculators were new then and 24 kilobytes was the limit for two computer users to share. Now, users have a million times that storage space in gigabytes. The computational power of that 4.5-centimeter detector in the PET scan used to take up a closet-sized cabinet.
GE Healthcare’s PET initiative has grown rapidly from “a garage shop” when it started in 1989 while the performance and efficiency of the machines has improved significantly. Early PET scanners cost more than $2 million and now sell for well under $1 million, with the module accounting for a significant percentage of that cost. Those first machines also took about 45 minutes to complete a scan, and the latest machines can do it in a minute – or seven minutes to complete a full body scan.
|McDaniel works with other physicists, known as the “detector group” who are largely responsible for the design of the PET scan at GE Healthcare.
Today GE Healthcare employs about 46,000 people worldwide. It invests more than $1 billion a year in research and development to support its core strengths of biosciences, medical imaging and information technologies.
At the Waukesha facility where McDaniel works, GE Healthcare’s PET scanners are designed, assembled, tested and shipped directly to the hospitals that will put them to work.
McDaniel shares a pod of cubicles with two other physicists, known as the “detector group,” who are largely responsible for the design of the PET scan. A white board on the wall behind his desk chair is a mess of numbers and formulas. A pair of mugs sitting atop his desk shelf read “Computer Genius” and “Rocket Scientist.” The detector group collaborates with a group of electrical engineers in another pod of cubicles a few steps away.
McDaniel jokes about the detector group “having loud arguments about 10 picoseconds.” The whole scene conjures comparisons to the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” but McDaniel shrugs off that notion.
“GE has a very strong attitude of reinventing itself and changing continuously with the need,” he says. “It is a big corporation and, as any big corporation or big organization, there is a level of rigor.”
The detector group is constantly working on the next generation of PET scanning machines. The detector itself is refreshed every three to five years with the goal of designing a more reliable and efficient machine at a lower cost. It’s a mantra in which McDaniel takes a lot of pride.
|McDaniel’s collaboration and research for GE has taken him to locations throughout the world. He has experienced an Israeli desert in August and Siberia in December, pictured here, where the high temperature was -32 degrees.|
“This is not the iPhone where we’re coming out with an iPhone next year,” he says. “Development is long, depending on the design.”
During its latest design, McDaniel and his team made a breakthrough on the PET scanner’s cost that made PET technology available to a larger set of hospitals that couldn’t afford it previously.
“The lowered cost has allowed PET to go to places in the world it couldn’t go before,” he says. “Hospitals can see more patients in a day.”
In 2015, GE recognized McDaniel for his contributions to the PET scan and career excellence with its GE Edison Award, a prestigious honor named for the company’s famous founder, Thomas Edison. Letters supporting McDaniel’s nomination came from around the world.
In his unassuming manner, McDaniel acknowledges he was deeply honored by the award and then speaks to a vision statement on a wall in the GE Healthcare facility. The statement at the foot of a staircase reads, in part, “Let’s make better health for more people. We are at work making the world work better.”
“I’m always proud of the next machine,” he said. “When you do a design, there’s always trade-offs and how much value you put on different pieces. We have always put a very high priority on our ability to detect the gamma rays versus some other parameters and cost. We don’t design a detector. We design a scanner to meet a clinical need.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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