The Medical Master
An exclusive interview with Dr. Steven Beyea
By Judy Wityszyn
Photograph by Riley Smith
Dr. Steven Beyea, who earned a BSc and a PhD from the University of New Brunswick, has made a home with his family in Halifax. An award-winning, published medical physicist, Dr. Beyea is now the Scientific Program Lead of the Biomedical Translational Imaging Centre (BIOTIC) at the QEII Health Sciences Centre and the IWK Health Centre. Dr. Beyea’s team of researchers uncovers innovative ways to translate advancements in physics into new diagnostic imaging technologies that will have a direct impact on improving patient care at home and around the world.
The world-leading research at BIOTIC is thanks in part to the support of the QEII Foundation’s donor community. The QEII Foundation raised $3.1-million for the purchase of 3 Tesla Magnetic Resonance Imaging (3T MRI) technology, including a generous $2.5-million donation from the Gauthier and David families. Dr. Beyea has had remarkable success discovering possibilities with medical technologies that affect the diagnosis of diseases ranging from prostate cancer to fatty liver disease, that improve our understanding of brain function and more. Judy Wityszyn met with him to learn about his motivation, improving lives, and life on the East Coast.
Photographs: Darren Hubley
THE MARITIME EDIT: In 1991 you were among about 300 Saint John High School graduating students. You were in the International Baccalaureate Program, splitting your time between the lab and the musicals, and always performing skits to keep the students laughing. The last time you were on that stage you got your diploma. Tell me about where you went from there.
STEVEN BEYEA: Those were wonderful times at SJHS, and I have great memories of my time there. From there I went to the University of New Brunswick to study physics. I was originally planning to be a medical doctor and saw physics as my stepping stone to get into medical school. My father, Donald Beyea, was a physicist and it served him well. He went on to do medical imaging at the Saint John Regional Hospital for 40 years. I accelerated to my PhD and, in the process, discovered my love for being able to take the research and apply it to what was actually going on. As a result I decided to stay with physics research and made a personal commitment to make the research count for more than filling bookcases. As a teenager I had grand plans to make my own path, and yet here I am decades later, doing medical imaging in a Maritime hospital. The apple clearly did not fall far!
THE MARITIME EDIT: Why did you choose UNB? Have you ever regretted not going to a larger Canadian location or even the USA?
STEVEN BEYEA: Not for a second and even more definitely now, having seen a broader view of other locations and facilities. At the undergraduate level it really is about the direct, personal contact that you have with the professors. And in doing my graduate studies at a smaller institution, I could have similar research opportunities but all while working together with a closely knit team. So New Brunswick made sense to me.
THE MARITIME EDIT: You mentioned having a broader perspective now. How did that come about?
STEVEN BEYEA: After I graduated with my PhD I got a work visa and headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I still remember wondering, as I crossed the border, if I’d ever move back to Canada let alone the Maritimes. I worked with some amazing people down there and learned a lot, but I always struggled in my mind with wanting to make sure that my research made a difference for people and that it would have an impact. I started looking toward the medical field and, in 2003, was offered an opportunity to come “home” to Halifax when the government opened a new medical-imaging research lab. I’ve also travelled extensively and have gained perspective about what we can learn from what others in the world are doing.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What compelled you to come back? Did you wonder why the government had chosen the Maritimes to open this research lab?
STEVEN BEYEA: I was intrigued because it had the possibility to help achieve my goal of doing something that mattered. It represented an important opportunity to solve medical problems that mattered to the Maritimes. The government was trying to grow the life sciences in the Maritimes to play an enabling role, and medical imaging would be an important part of the program. We have one of the oldest and heaviest populations in the country and, consequently, one of the highest rates of diabetes and other disorders. We can’t rely on others to solve our health problems. Yet at the same time the Maritimes is full of quality educated young people, so I knew we could do it.
THE MARITIME EDIT: It’s been 15 years since you returned and got involved in this program. How are things now?
STEVEN BEYEA: Things are great. The road to get here wasn’t a straight one but we’re doing well. My team is explicitly focused on medical-imaging technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to, for example, try to make diagnosis more accurate and the technology faster, or to use artificial intelligence to extract new information that will change the course of a patient’s life. We have a variety of research partners in the medical industry, including global leaders such as GE Healthcare. We have also partnered with small companies like Cubresa Inc., a small Canadian start-up that we’ve been working with for five years. Through this partnership we have worked with them to get their first two products to market, resulting in a royalty agreement that has potential to fund ongoing research in the Maritimes. A number of technologies are actively in use in patient trials to help with the diagnosis of prostate cancer and with pre-surgical mapping for patients with brain tumours. We have the potential to commercialize and to affect patients around the world while generating economic impact for the Maritimes, all while providing Maritime patients early access to medical technologies at the IWK and QEII health centres that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
THE MARITIME EDIT: It sounds like things are going well. Are there challenges to being a leading expert, changing the world in the Maritimes?
STEVEN BEYEA: Sometimes people in the Maritimes don’t recognize the role they can play because we just assume we are too small. However, in the medical field in particular, we actually sit in a sweet spot that is both nimble and offers a strategic opportunity to pull together team members from all fields quickly and easily. Any success that I have had speaks to the amazing talent that exists on my research team and throughout our region’s hospitals. Companies like GE Healthcare partner with us in part because they recognize the ability to make leading advancements more quickly in a community-centric location where team success is the focus. That is so critical in the medical field. Money can sometimes be a challenge. Some of the larger centres have ten of everything to our one. However, that just means we must be innovative to find alternatives, which can also reveal other opportunities. You have to be both nimble and hungry for success.
THE MARITIME EDIT: As you mentor MSc and PhD students, what key learning do you want them to all take away?
STEVEN BEYEA: I have students doing research at all levels, primarily in medical physics and biomedical engineering. A key thing for their future success is for them to be able to explain something complex in terms that other people understand. I jokingly pass along the message given to me when I was a graduate student, which was that you cannot graduate until your parents can understand the science you are doing.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Let’s talk about your family. You have a son, Jack, and a lovely wife, Martha, who is a lawyer. What are some favourite things you like to do?
STEVEN BEYEA: Discovery Centre in Halifax is a favourite hangout. With my physics and Martha’s legal logic, Jack gets a double dose. He very much wants to think of everything as a system and discover how things work. Bath time can turn into “Where does water come from?” And “the tap” isn’t acceptable because he really does want to understand where water comes from.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Your son is five years young. As you and your wife look forward, what key messages do you want to instill?
STEVEN BEYEA: I think that two things are key. First, get out and see the world. Try to understand the world and what is out there, the good and the bad. Jack has been on 16 international trips and loves to travel so I hope this continues. Also — no matter what his job may be — question, think and evaluate for yourself. It’s a complex world, and it will be increasingly important that he has the ability to objectively and critically think for himself.
THE MARITIME EDIT: As we wrap up, do you have any closing messages or remarks?
STEVEN BEYEA: I’m excited about the possibilities for the future. There has been great progress. I am proud that we have been able to accomplish it all while living in the Maritimes, but there’s even more that my students and the extended research team, together with our partners, will be able to do. And as much as I love to travel and gain new perspectives, as Jack likes to say, “Going away is great. It makes coming home better.”
Photography by Riley Smith
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