Skip to main content
Susan Hagness and Justin Williams
December 9, 2022

Hagness, Williams selected as National Academy of Inventors Fellows

The National Academy of Inventors has selected two University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering faculty members for its 2022 class of fellows: Susan Hagness, Philip Dunham Reed Professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Justin Williams, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of biomedical engineering and neurological surgery. NAI fellow status is considered the highest professional distinction given solely to academic inventors.

For the last two decades, Hagness’ research has focused primarily on microwave interactions with human tissue, including techniques to image, detect and treat cancers.

Her work includes several large-scale, statistically rigorous microwave-frequency dielectric spectroscopy studies of tissues which were able to establish the dielectric, or the permittivity and electrical conductivity, differences between malignant and healthy breast tissue and normal and diseased liver tissue. She has also looked at the potential for using carbon nanotubes—extremely tiny, rolled up sheets of single-layer carbon atoms with unique electrical and thermal properties—as heating and microwave-frequency contrast agents.

Hagness has also developed versatile and compact mathematical models of the properties of dense and fatty breast tissue that can be incorporated into simulations as well as a repository of breast tissue phantoms, or highly detailed scans of “virtual patients,” that can be used in breast cancer detection and treatment applications.

This foundational work has positioned Hagness to pursue innovative multidisciplinary research projects. For instance, her team was the first to develop and demonstrate several microwave imaging advances using phantoms, including ultra-wideband beamforming techniques for detecting breast tumors, inverse scattering techniques for imaging volumetric breast density as well as contrast-enhanced microwave breast imaging.

Hagness and her collaborators have also made strides in the field of microwave thermal therapies for cancer, including techniques using antenna-array beaming to focus microwave energy at tumors as well as minimally invasive microwave ablation techniques, or using heat to destroy cancer cells, using miniature antennas.

Hagness says the culture of UW-Madison has been a major factor in her success. As a flagship public research university, the campus has experts in almost every discipline imaginable and a collaborative spirit that leads to serendipitous encounters and sometimes unexpected research partnerships.

“The collaborative opportunities have been extraordinary” says Hagness. “We’ve been out in cranberry fields testing microwave remote sensing technology for estimating crop yields, in collaboration with agricultural scientists. We’ve been in the pathology suite in the UW Hospital conducting microwave ablation experiments on mastectomy specimens in collaboration with breast surgeons. I couldn’t have predicted some of the innovative research directions I have had the good fortune to pursue.”

“I’m filled with gratitude for the generosity of colleagues who took the time to nominate me for this honor,” she says.

Williams is a pioneer in the field of neural engineering, particularly in developing novel, minimally invasive electrodes and working in concert with physicians to translate them to the clinic.

He’s co-founded four companies around devices and technology for recording information from the brain and treating neurological diseases and more. Those include NeuroOne, a company built around flexible, thin-film electrode technology based on the first patent Williams filed after arriving at UW-Madison in 2003.

Williams recalls getting an invitation from then-UW-Madison neurosurgeon P. Charles Garell, now at New York Medical College, to see a new, widely marketed electrode array surgically implanted to treat epilepsy. Williams was stunned by the device’s bulkiness—and appalled by the damage it left on the brain when removed after a few weeks.

“It really clicked that there was this huge chasm between what I knew we were capable of doing from the research and engineering standpoints,” he says, “and what clinicians had access to.”

He set out to create a true microscale array thin enough to minimize mechanical strain on the brain and flexible enough to mold to the organ’s contours. He spent multiple days a week in the operating room with Garell and neurosurgery residents, identifying needs and specifications for such devices. The work led to the launch of NeuroOne in 2009. On November 22, 2022, Williams and other company representatives were in New York to ring the Nasdaq closing bell, marking one year since the company’s initial public offering and celebrating its latest U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

Williams is working on new devices and strategies to treat neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as well as other minimally invasive methods to electrically stimulate the nervous system to alleviate a host of conditions. He’s worked with a slew of collaborators in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health over the years, including Azam Ahmed and David Niemann, associate professors of neurological surgery.

He’s particularly proud of the NAI honor, which he sees as validation of his belief in infusing business thinking, such as regulatory considerations, and consulting with clinical collaborators early in the research process.

“This is one that really exemplifies my approach to research, balancing and making sure that the things we’re doing in the research lab have translational abilities,” he says.

Jo Handelsman, the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and professor of plant pathology, was also selected as a fellow, bringing UW-Madison’s total number of NAI fellows to 15. The new fellows will be honored at the NAI annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in June 2023.