On Track with Dr. Ackerman: NLM Engineer Still Chugging Along

For almost 30 years, Michael Ackerman, PhD, helped make what was once thought to be inconceivable real and revolutionary.

Dr. Ackerman stands in front of plexiglass models created using the visible human data

Mike Ackerman, PhD

Dr. Ackerman managed the Visible Human Project, which changed medical education and led to technological advancements. The project’s detailed digital representation of complete male and female bodies gave us surgical simulators, recyclable cadavers, virtual crash test dummies, and a virtual arm for practicing blood draws. Three-dimensional computer models based on the Visible Human Project have even been used to design clinical treatments, such as virtual colonoscopies.

But there’s more than the Visible Human Project to this former Chief of the Office of High Performance Computing and Communications (OHPCC) of the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications.

Model Train Enthusiast and Good Captain

Ackerman grew up in New York City. “As a little kid, I got stuck on model trains,” he recalled. His childhood interest was a harbinger of his future career choice, that of an engineer.

Later as an undergraduate, the brain and the computer fascinated him. He believed that, with an understanding of the computer, one could understand and build the brain. This interest led him to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when few people even knew about the field.

After completing his PhD, Ackerman joined the Naval Medical Research Institute, where he conducted research on diving neurophysiology and behavior. As a board member of the Symposium for Computer Application in Medicine, he befriended Dr. Donald Lindberg, then a new board member, in 1980. When Lindberg became the NLM Director in 1984, Ackerman jumped on board initially to head the Educational Technology Branch and then later the Office of High Performance Computing and Communications when it was created in 1994.

Mid-sagittal view through the head and torso

A cross-section view of the male figure from the Visible Human Project.

Although Ackerman’s signature achievement in his career was conceiving, creating and managing the Visible Human Project, he also provided guidance for NLM’s telemedicine, distance collaboration, advanced networking, and imaging interests. Over the years, Ackerman has shared his know-how by co-authoring a book, Human Anatomy: From the Renaissance to the Digital Age, and writing over 235 papers and book chapters. He is also an active member and speaker at organizations involved in the field of medical informatics. Ackerman also made time for the people around him.

OHPCC staff members certainly hold their old boss in high regard.

Dr. Fang Liu, a research scientist who worked under Ackerman for 10 years, said, “He has the knowledge and the view for the future. He was a very nice supervisor.” Liu added, “He’s also a keen sailor. Each summer he invites us to sail on his boat, and he’s a super good captain!”

“He’s a visionary, he’s smart, he’s a great guy, and the best boss ever,” noted Dr. Craig Locatis, OHPCC educational research specialist, who served under Ackerman for 30 years.

Still On Board

Ackerman officially retired from NLM at the end of 2015, but he remains a busy contractor, coordinating projects such as the recently announced Pill Image Recognition Challenge. This challenge is designed to help discover and develop high-quality algorithms and software that rank how well consumer smartphone images of prescription pills match reference images of pills in the authoritative NLM RxIMAGE database.

The NLM will use the challenge entries to create an application programming interface and a future software system for pill image identification. This interface will be accessible for free.

The challenge is accepting submissions from April 4 to May 31, 2016. Winners will be announced on August 1.

By Preeti Gokal Kochar, PhD, Technical Information Specialist, NLM Index Section

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