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Author: Dino Lencioni
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A graphic combining a photo of Bisi Bell outdoors on campus with the Alan. T. Waterman Award medal
I have consistently been committed to following my curiosity and investigating answers to complex questions as deeply and as fully as possible. So, I encourage young investigators and researchers to dream big, embrace new opportunities, and follow research questions wherever they may lead."—Professor Muyinatu "Bisi" Bell

Muyinatu “Bisi” Bell, John C. Malone Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has been named a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s 2024 Alan T. Waterman Award, regarded as the nation’s highest honor for early career scientists and engineers. Bell was recognized for her pioneering interdisciplinary research spanning photoacoustic and ultrasound imaging, including advancements in coherence-based beamforming, photoacoustic-guided surgery, and deep learning techniques to enhance medical image quality, reduce surgical complications, and foster more equitable healthcare practices.

Established by Congress in 1975 to honor NSF’s first director, Alan T. Waterman, the award includes a five-year $1 million grant that supports recipients’ scientific research or advanced study in various fields, ranging from mathematical and physical sciences to engineering and social sciences.

“I am grateful and honored that the esteemed selection committee chose me to receive this award, which has an amazingly rich history and inspiring legacy,” Bell said.

Bell is Johns Hopkins’ first Waterman Award winner in its 48-year history. She is one of three recipients this year. Her fellow recipients, Katrina G. Claw, a genetic scientist at the University of Colorado Anschultz Medical Campus, and Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, an engineer working in robotics at Yale University, were also recognized for their innovative approaches and leadership in their respective fields.

“These three outstanding researchers exhibit extraordinary scientific research accomplishments and stand out as leaders among their peers,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “This award recognizes their contributions and is also a vital investment in the future of science discovery and innovation, empowering the awardees to deepen their research, expand their projects, and explore new frontiers in their field. More importantly, it enables these exceptional individuals to apply their groundbreaking work for the betterment of their communities and society at large.”

Bell’s achievements cross several medical domains, including neurosurgery, cardiovascular health, women’s health, and cancer diagnosis and treatment. She pioneered the development of the world’s first short-lag spatial coherence beamformer for ultrasound data, revolutionizing imaging clarity and reducing acoustic clutter. This innovation addresses persistent challenges in photoacoustic imaging, particularly skin tone bias, benefiting diverse communities. Additionally, her advancements in photoacoustic-guided surgery enhance visualization, improving patient safety during complex procedures. Bell’s recent research utilizes AI to detect COVID-19 in lung ultrasound images, furthering medical diagnostics.

“Bisi is at the forefront of groundbreaking discoveries that benefit individuals and society, making medical procedures more effective, safer, and available more equitably. She is a multidisciplinary pioneer, and this achievement recognizes her innovative solutions to complex problems.”
—Ed Schlesinger, dean of the Whiting School of Engineering.

When asked to provide advice to young researchers, Bell responded, “All of my academic coursework, prior research, and life experiences prepared me for where I am today. While I never imagined that this preparation would lead to this specific moment, I have consistently been committed to following my curiosity and investigating answers to complex questions as deeply and as fully as possible. So, I encourage young investigators and researchers to dream big, embrace new opportunities, and follow research questions wherever they may lead.”

Bell, who holds additional appointments in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science, has won numerous awards throughout her career, including the National Institutes of Health K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award, recognition in MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 list, the National Institutes of Health Trailblazer Award, the NSF CAREER Award, a Sloan Research Fellowship in Physics, and recognition as Maryland’s Outstanding Young Engineer. Her recent accolades include being elected as a Fellow of AIMBE, SPIE, and Optica.

Bell will be celebrated for her accomplishments at the NSF awards gala in Washington, D.C., and at a meeting with the National Science Board in Alexandria, Virginia, next month.