Celebrating the Graduate Studies Class of 2018 with Dante Capaldi

By Emily Leighton, MA'13

Full Metal Jacket. The Handmaid’s Tale. Sharknado. For users on the popular online forum Reddit, these movies draw comparisons to graduate student life.

“For writing a dissertation, The Shining,” writes one particularly morose user.

Graduate school can be many things – challenging, fulfilling, humbling, comical, emotional. For Dante Capaldi, MClSc/PhD’18, it was transformative. He says Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope best represents his experience.

Capaldi recently completed the CAMPEP-accredited, combined MClSc/PhD program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. The selective program focuses on medical physics training, with opportunities for hands-on experiences in diagnostic imaging.

Reflecting on his experience, he recalls a younger, flip-flop-clad version of himself, arriving at Western’s campus in September 2013. “I’ve drastically changed,” he said with a grin, pointing to his polished dress shoes as evidence. “I’ve gained a level of professionalism, confidence and independence that has opened doors for me.”

“Graduate school taught me that it’s not really about me, it’s about what I’m trying to accomplish through my research,” he added. “That’s what comes first.”

Supervised by Schulich Medicine & Dentistry Professor Grace Parraga, PhD, at Robarts Research Institute, Capaldi focused on lung imaging using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT). Specifically, he developed techniques to explore and measure the pulmonary function of the lungs without the use of inhaled contrast agents.

Working with asthma, COPD and lung cancer patients, Capaldi applied a variety of breathing techniques, instructing patients to breathe at particular lung volumes or to breathe freely. This enabled him to acquire structural and anatomical information about the lungs as they expanded and contracted.

He then aligned and processed the image sequences, pulling out aggregate signals to detect changes in air volume within the lungs.

A major advantage of non-contrast enhanced approaches is the potential for clinical translation. The hyperpolarized gases used as contrast agents are expensive and availability is limited in clinical settings. “The power of this research is that these non-contrast enhanced imaging approaches can be applied broadly, without the purchase of specialized equipment or personnel,” Capaldi explained.

The young researcher says the highlight of his PhD studies was watching this work gain momentum in other Canadian research centres, including McMaster University, the University of British Columbia and the Université de Montréal. “Seeing the techniques we developed at Robarts translated to other research settings is something I’m really proud of,” he said.

During his graduate training, Capaldi was honoured with several awards from the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, and received the prestigious RSNA Physics Prize from the Radiological Society of North America. He was also the recipient of an NSERC Postgraduate Scholarship.

In four and a half years, he contributed to 21 peer-reviewed manuscripts and conference proceedings, and his research contributions were highlighted in the seminal text MRI of the Lung, a valued resource for international experts in the field.

Capaldi completed an undergraduate degree in medical physics at the University of Windsor, with a minor in mathematics. During his studies, he completed co-op research terms at the Institute of Diagnostic Imaging Research in Windsor and the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria.

At Robarts, he found a rigorous and dynamic research environment. “I was given independence to do my own research, but I was also exposed to other researchers, I worked regularly with patients, and I was involved with day-to-day lab operations,” he said.

The breadth of this training experience led to many lasting memories. Capaldi recalls a time he helped move hyperpolarizing equipment to McMaster University’s Firestone Institute for Respiratory Health in Hamilton. “I had to help reverse this rental truck into the loading dock at Robarts,” he said with a laugh. “That’s something not a lot of other trainees can say they’ve done.”

He also looks back fondly on the late nights and weekends spent with fellow lab members before major deadlines. “We were all in the same boat together, trying to accomplish the same thing,” he said. “There’s a collaborative, team environment for trainees at Robarts, and I was very fortunate to be a part of that.”

This July, Capaldi will be joining the Stanford University School of Medicine in California to complete a Clinical Residency in Therapy Physics and a postdoctoral research fellowship funded by NSERC.

The opportunity to be part of translational science is particularly motivating for the young researcher. “I’ll be involved with cancer patients and their treatment plans, using radiation therapy, and I’ll be generating research questions from the clinical exposure,” he explained.

As the 27-year-old officially graduates this June, he’ll cross the Alumni Hall stage donning the traditional purple robes reserved for doctoral graduates – flip flops optional, of course.

The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry congratulates Dante and all graduating research trainees on their achievements during their time at Western University.