Emory Report
September 15, 2008
Volume 61, Number 4



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15, 2008
Finding his focus: Gymnast turned mathematician is driven by precision

By Carol Clark

Jim Nagy is a leader in the field of using math and scientific computation to sharpen blurry images, for everything from medical to security applications. But right after high school, he had only a fuzzy picture of his future.

“I worked in a factory, driving a forklift and loading trucks. I didn’t have a vision of being a researcher and professor. That never crossed my mind,” says Nagy, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.

He did know that he wanted to continue with gymnastics, which he began in high school. “I love the sport,” Nagy says. “It takes a lot of training to do it, along with a certain body type. You have to be small and have fast-twitch muscles because you need to spring. The sport builds confidence and helps in overcoming fear.”

After a year of working, Nagy enrolled at Northern Illinois University, where he competed as a gymnast and studied math, physics and chemistry. “I had this vague idea that I’d maybe be an engineer,” he recalls.

It was a challenging course load to combine with intensive athletic training, but Nagy kept up his grades while rising to the national rank of number three in his gymnastic specialty — the rings. A phenomenal strength-to-weight ratio is needed to deftly perform exercises such as the iron cross, while gripping rings suspended 15 feet above the floor.

“In training, you’re bound to have a bad day when you studied late and are feeling tired,” says Nagy, who experienced “a couple of bad crashes,” including landing on the back of his neck during a dismount and bruising a nerve.

He has to baby his left shoulder to this day due to his past injuries, but Nagy has no regrets, crediting gymnastics with helping him become more focused and organized.

Inspired by a professor who used math and computers to solve problems with signal and image processing, Nagy found a new passion and went on to get his doctorate degree and conduct research in this emerging field.

Just as digital cameras break images into tiny pixels, Nagy takes complicated equations surrounding imaging and breaks them down into millions of smaller, simpler pieces. “You have to solve each piece through approximation, and the more you break it down, the better the approximation should be,” he says.

His specialty puts him at the cutting edge of a range of scientific disciplines and breakthroughs, including space exploration. After NASA sent up the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, the instrument’s primary mirror was found to have imperfections. Nagy worked with a team of scientists to take the imperfect data gathered by the Hubble, then develop algorithms and software to sharpen and improve the pictures.

At Emory, one of Nagy’s current projects is working with radiology in the School of Medicine to help improve techniques of computer tomography for breast imaging and cancer screening. “Medical imaging is a tricky thing,” Nagy says. “For one thing, your lungs and heart are continuously moving, causing blurring. And you have to radiate someone. The main problem is, how do you get a good image and, at the same time, limit the radiation dose to a person?”

Tomosynthesis is a new technology, not yet approved for clinical purposes, that uses conventional X-ray technology to provide more three-dimensional views. “If a tumor is small, it can easily be hidden,” Nagy explains. “By rotating the X-ray in a spiral, and using several projections — filtered to capture different kinds of information — you can get more perspectives and more data.”

The task for Nagy and graduate student Julianne Chung is to develop algorithms and software that can translate the data gathered by tomosynthesis into clear images that can be easily read by radiologists.
“As computers get faster and faster, some people think you should be able to solve any problem, but that’s not true,” Nagy explains. “Actually, the faster the computers get, the harder the problems become that you want to solve.”