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Benjamin Bartelle

Assistant professor
PhD, molecular biophysics, New York University, 2012

Areas of expertise and bio

Expertise: Molecular fMRI of neuroinflammation and degeneration, in vivo synthetic biology of reporters sensors and actuators, genetic and biomolecular circuits

“Be prepared to cross disciplines and get creative.”

This is Ben Bartelle’s teaching philosophy and the story of his career so far.

When Bartelle joins the Fulton Schools’ new group of magnetic resonance imaging faculty in January, he’ll have the opportunity to shape an emerging multidisciplinary field.

Bartelle’s focus will be on building new molecular tools for functional imaging with MRI, called molecular fMRI. He’ll be connecting multiple specialties to make that happen: understanding magnetic resonance mechanisms that produce signal and contrast, the neurobiology being studied and the synthetic biology methods needed to build the tech and get it working in a living organism.

Bartelle didn’t start out knowing he wanted to conduct MRI research. After a few career changes in biology-related sciences and arts, he joined a biotech startup, Sentigen, where he was introduced to synthetic neurobiology.

“I realized that almost all biotech research is based on assays in a dish. As sophisticated as we have gotten with tissue culture, at some point we are going to run out of questions you can answer that way,” Bartelle says. “To understand the most complex human diseases, we have to look at molecular processes inside an actual person.”

That realization was the impetus for him to pursue a doctorate in molecular biophysics. As a relatively new field of research, it was difficult for Bartelle to find funding and journals relevant to his MRI work. But after his Massachusetts Institute of Technology research team earned a perfect score on a National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative grant in 2016, he’s hopeful. He believes the bioengineering research community is beginning to understand the importance of molecular technologies for MRI, and that joining the growing community of MRI faculty at ASU will lead to real breakthroughs in improving human health.

Teaching courses on molecular imaging, biophysics and synthetic biology will also help him distill and formalize the concepts of the field and to foster the next generation of molecular fMRI engineers.

Over the next semester, Bartelle will be focusing his research on neuroinflammation sensors, studying the role of neuroinflammatory signals in neurodegenerative disorders.

“We have some prototype technologies that detect one of the most common inflammatory signaling molecules, nitric oxide,” Bartelle says, who will continue his work at MIT until joining the ASU faculty in spring 2020. “I’m getting the proof of concept work done here at MIT with my collaborators and adding more tools to my molecular fMRI ‘Pokédex.’ ”

Bartelle not only studies the underlying science of the body and mind, he also trains his own body and mind through the arts.

“Dance is my exercise and therapy, but it’s also a means to intuitively explore neuroscience and biology,” Bartelle says. “In its own way, movement is as much a part of my process as going to the lab.”

He strongly encourages students to explore the arts as part of a valuable education that helps you understand yourself and “become the most empowered version of yourself.”