The Life And Science Of Jack Belliveau: An Oral History

Researcher Jack Belliveau was a pioneer of functional MRI and multimodal imaging
The Life And Science Of Jack Belliveau: An Oral History

By Gary Boas

Mark Cohen, a neuroscientist who 25 years ago was a young faculty member in the MGH Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, paused for a moment before addressing the crowded conference room in downtown Boston. “Somehow,” he said, when he finally spoke, “I feel like I’m a character in Jack’s dream.”

It was a warm summer’s afternoon in 2014 and friends and colleagues had come together to remember Jack Belliveau, the Martinos Center investigator and fMRI pioneer. Belliveau published, in the Nov. 1, 1991, issue of Science, the first report of brain activation measured with magnetic resonance imaging, the paper accompanied by the now-iconic cover showing a slice of a brain in a cutaway image of a human head, small areas of it lit up in response to a visual stimulus.

While the symposium was organized around his astounding accomplishments in functional MRI and multimodal imaging, speakers one after the other spoke of the personal traits they knew in Belliveau—the unquenchable thirst for knowledge, the unchecked enthusiasm and the unwavering vision—that made these accomplishments possible.

And they told stories, often very funny and always very warm stories. Stories of how Belliveau revolutionized the field of medical imaging, but also of the impact he had on their own lives and careers.

The stories went all the way back to the beginning. The origins of Jack Belliveau’s life’s work can be traced, we learned, to the late 1970s, when he was a junior in high school. He started thinking about the brain—about capturing and storing thought—when his father passed away, said Rod Tayler, a childhood friend. This idea, the possibility of preserving someone’s consciousness even after they have left us, took root and continued to grow—especially when Belliveau began to consider his mother’s own mortality. He loved his mother dearly, revered her, really, and would do whatever he could to hold on to her.

This is an essential part of the fMRI tale. As a number of the speakers reminded us, Belliveau’s vision for the technology that would become fMRI was driven by a desire to keep his mother with him, by downloading her consciousness onto a chip. “He really would like to capture a person’s soul in a portrait, a picture that could be recorded and seen,” said Van Wedeen, another young faculty member in the Center at the time of the early fMRI experiments. “It really was his mother.” And as all of them agreed, this extraordinary woman—a church organist and an amateur pilot who made whatever sacrifices were necessary to provide for her son, her only child—was a worthy inspiration for a neuroimaging revolution.

Belliveau would always maintain this bond with his mother. Many years later, he would take her with him on his travels around the world—from Israel to France, from England to Japan—sharing with her his adventures in studying the brain. During these travels, he would proudly introduce her not only to all of his peers and students but also to Nobel prize laureates and other notable scientists.

Belliveau also pioneered multimodal imaging, exploring the workings of the brain with combinations of fMRI and other imaging techniques. He is shown here with EEG researcher Greg Simpson in 1994. Photo courtesy of Greg Simpson.
Belliveau also pioneered multimodal imaging, exploring the workings of the brain with combinations of fMRI and other imaging techniques. He is shown here with EEG researcher Greg Simpson in 1994. Photo courtesy of Greg Simpson.

The narrative picks up again in the late 1980s, when Belliveau joined the Martinos Center (then known as the MGH-NMR Center). Tom Brady, the director of the Center at the time, recalled meeting “this skinny, bright-eyed guy named Jack” who was looking for a new lab in which to pursue his interests in the brain after his initial research in MR spectroscopy. “His last name is French but Jack portrayed himself as an Irishman,” Brady said. “I liked him immediately.” Belliveau quickly integrated into the Center and set to work developing his ideas about the brain.

A graduate student, he never had time for the prescribed roles of academic research, nor did he allow them to restrict his boundless enthusiasm or his singular vision. “Jack had no regard whatsoever for the formalism of the academic world,” said James Thrall, then the Chair of the MGH Radiology Department, “but the ultimate regard for the science.” Robert Weisskoff, a Senior Physicist at Advanced NMR Systems at the time phrased it slightly differently (Advanced NMR built the first human-scale echo-planar imaging [EPI] scanner, the key enabling technology that Belliveau would use in his fMRI experiments). “Jack scared the bejesus out of me,” he said with a smile. “He was loud, he was emotional, he was unbelievably energetic … But he was just an amazing motivator.”

An amazing motivator, indeed. Belliveau was convinced that MRI could be used to measure brain function—the kind of function that underlies human thought, said Randy Buckner. Buckner joined the Center as a postdoctoral fellow in the mid-1990s and was among the first to perform event-related fMRI experiments. And his clear belief that this was possible, that he could harness the techniques of the day to make the necessary physiological measurements, drove him to push those techniques into areas they had never been before. To this end, he assembled a crack team of investigators, inspiring them with his own unflagging enthusiasm to follow him down what must have seemed at times a preposterous path.

The researchers worked tirelessly to tackle the many issues that arose along the way, endlessly attending to an array of small details. But Belliveau never lost sight of the big picture. As a reminder of this, Roger Tootell, told the story of a tedious afternoon in an MRI scanner bay with several of the other investigators. Tootell was a neurobiology researcher with Harvard Medical School who later was the first to use fMRI as a tool for fundamental neuroscience studies. “We were trying to get just the tiniest bits of signal out of the scanner,” he said, “and Jack would come breezing in saying, ‘We have to hurry up and finish with these details so we can discover how love works and consciousness,’ and all these kinds of things.”

At a meeting in Greece in 2002. From left to right: The Martinos Center's Nikos Makris, Bruce Jenkins, Ken Kwong, Van Wedeen, Belliveau and Bruce Rosen. Photo courtesy of Maria Angela Franceschini.
At a meeting in Greece in 2002. From left to right: The Martinos Center’s Nikos Makris, Bruce Jenkins, Kenneth Kwong, Van Wedeen, Belliveau and Bruce Rosen. Photo courtesy of Maria Angela Franceschini.

His seemingly preternatural ability to draw people together and to inspire them to work as a team reflected an important fact about Belliveau: He was a social scientist, said Bruce Jenkins, a young faculty member in the Center during those early years. As in, a scientist who liked to be social. “Jack always had to do experiments with other people,” he said. For him, it was all about interactions with other researchers, where he could talk about the work he was doing and engage in a vigorous exchange of ideas.

Jenkins related the story of one such interaction gone wrong, a story too good not to tell: One night over drinks in a bar in downtown Boston, he and Belliveau were exploring some intractable scientific problem and Belliveau was berating himself for not working it out more quickly. Jenkins tried to reassure him that it was OK he hadn’t yet arrived at a solution. “It’s not like you’re Albert Einstein,” he offered. Belliveau fixed him with an icy stare, and in response said only, “What do you mean?” He apparently never forgot this. “At least once a year I had to hear he had fallen short of Albert Einstein in his genius,” Jenkins said.

Even after publication of the 1991 Science paper made him something of a celebrity, Belliveau continued to look beyond the horizon. He knew that “no single technique would be able to capture the symphony of the human brain,” Buckner said, so he launched a series of collaborations exploring the potential of what we now know as multimodal imaging. This was long before the Center had a PET scanner or any of the other (non-MRI) imaging modalities its researchers are developing and applying today, explained Kenneth Kwong, the then-postdoctoral fellow who followed up the Science paper with a 1992 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study introducing endogenous contrast to fMRI, so he jetted around the world meeting and conducting experiments with experts in these other fields, finding ways to delve even deeper into the brain than he already had. He spent huge swaths of time in the air, Kwong said. “We were always jealous of his frequent flyer mileage.”

And as he built his own lab, he took on a new role, or at least a formalized version of a role he’d long before adopted: that of mentor. Here, as with everywhere in his life and career, he cut a uniquely colorful figure. Giorgio Bonmassar met Belliveau for an interview for a postdoctoral fellow position in his lab in 1996, in a café in Charlestown, just down the road from the Center. And he gained his first insight into the character of the man who would help to shape his professional life when the latter asked, soon after sitting down: “Giorgio, how do you plan to change the world?”

Belliveau wanted those in his group to excel, to do great things, and he worked with them closely to help them meet their potential. But his concern wasn’t just for their professional betterment. He was also deeply loyal to them personally, and did whatever he could to pave the way for their happiness. Former student Greg Baker recalled, for example, that just before his—Baker’s—wedding, Belliveau sat down with his bride-to-be for a serious talk about her intentions toward him.

Belliveau explores Boston Harbor with the Martinos Center's David Boas. Photo courtesy of Maria Angela Franceschini.
Belliveau explores Boston Harbor with the Martinos Center’s David Boas. Photo courtesy of Maria Angela Franceschini.

In Life As in Science

For Belliveau, life and science were intimately intertwined. Science wasn’t just what he did; it was undeniably and unqualifiedly who he was. This isn’t to say, though, that he spent all of his time in the lab.

He was very much a sportsman. In addition to skiing and golf—he seems to have introduced a sizable portion of the biomedical imaging community to both—his prowess extended to sailing and scuba diving. We heard a number of stories about his adventures in each of these areas. He interviewed Jyrki Ahveninen for a postdoctoral fellow position in his lab 20 feet under the ocean’s surface in full scuba gear. He and Greg Simpson, an EEG researcher and a collaborator of Belliveau’s, once snuck away from a conference in Cuba for a snorkeling expedition (setting off a chain of events that almost left him stranded in the airport in Havana, with no Cuban currency left to buy a new plane ticket or even to feed himself). At one point he tried to draw John George, another important collaborator in the multimodal imaging arena, into a scheme to buy a wooden ship.

Somehow in the midst of this he also found time to be a musician—a drummer. He apparently made a habit of suddenly appearing onstage with bands performing at or near conferences and taking over the drum seat. We heard stories of him leading a smooth jazz combo through a raucous set of Led Zeppelin songs in the south of France, and of him slipping into an orange wig and livening up the closing dinner at a meeting in Sante Fe. Especially during the latter, said Matti Hamalainen, an MEG collaborator and later a Martinos Center faculty member, he resembled nothing so much as fellow drummer Animal, from the TV show The Muppets.

Belliveau could be a bit of a goofball, to be sure, but he also had an incisive wit. Jo Anne Fordham, the Center’s writer and editor during the early fMRI years, recalled him, for example, sitting at a boxy Mac computer in a corner of Building 149 in Charlestown, throwing sideways glances as he clacked away at a manuscript or a grant, making sly remarks, “with just a little too much joie de vivre to be Swiftian, but that kind of punch.”

It was a remarkable afternoon of stories and remembrances. And after listening to the gathered speakers, one thing was clear to everyone in the room: The history of functional MRI would be markedly different—and decidedly less interesting—without Belliveau as one of its chief protagonists. Bruce Rosen, the director of the Martinos Center and the principal investigator of the 1991 Science paper, described how Belliveau’s larger-than-life persona and his infectious zeal—not to mention his prodigious intellect—naturally made him the center of attention and cast him as a sage character and ultimately a kind of mentor to anyone he encountered. People gravitated toward him, wanted to engage him and hear what he had to say.

Even those who supervised him. Rosen, who recruited Belliveau to the Center and served as his mentor during those early years, recalled that when the latter introduced him to a friend or a colleague the person would invariably ask, “Are you one of Jack’s students?” He continued: “Aside from being moderately miffed at the latent height-ism in our society”—Belliveau checked in at 6’3”; Rosen is not quite as tall—“the reality is, that was very much a true statement.”

Jack Belliveau was a purveyor of ideas, a creator of things, a seeker, an adventurer and, yes, a teacher. In his too-brief 55 years, he set out to capture consciousness with a computer, ended up launching a revolution in neuroimaging, and along the way showed us a thing or two about wringing the most out of the limited time we have. He will be sorely missed.

 

Watch videos of the talks on the MGH Martinos Center website.