From Cells to Science and Society — Kevin Belfield is Engaged Across a Broad Spectrum of Research

Written by: Dean Maskevich,

As a researcher, Kevin Belfield is working at the forefront of medical innovation to develop a minimally invasive imaging technique that could revolutionize how wound healing and the growth of cancerous tissue are monitored. A professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science, Belfield is also dean of the College of Science and Liberal Arts (CSLA), and in this role he is helping to build the success of programs that span a very broad spectrum of research and education at NJIT.

Belfield came to NJIT in 2014 from the University of Central Florida, where he chaired the Department of Chemistry for ten years. In his career of some 16 years at the university, he was instrumental in creating interdisciplinary graduate programs in materials science and engineering, including a Ph.D. program. In 2013, he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The holder of more than a dozen U.S. patents, he has been the principal or co-principal investigator on over 30 grants, including awards from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council.

In college, Belfield’s path to NJIT began as a chemistry major at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Co-op work in industry, including at the Eastman Kodak Company, was an important aspect of his undergraduate experience, affirming his decision to pursue a career in chemistry. It’s an experience that he also advocates for students today.

“As I learned myself, co-op work and internships are a really good way to make connections between theory, the knowledge that students acquire in class, and the practical applications for that knowledge,” Belfield says. “It also gives you a sense of the values and interpersonal skills important in the workplace.”

Academic Attractions

Although Belfield believed that he would spend his working years in industry after earning his bachelor’s degree, RIT provided another opportunity that proved to be very formative — assisting two faculty members with research in physical and organic chemistry. This hands-on participation in research sparked consideration of going on to graduate school, which he did after working briefly for Bristol-Myers Squibb.

After completing his Ph.D. at Syracuse University, and another short sojourn in the chemical industry, Belfield weighed his options and chose to focus fully on the academic world. The satisfaction he found in far-ranging research was one deciding factor. But equally important, he says, was wanting to help give young people the same life-changing experience and opportunities that he had as an undergraduate.

“Given my own background, where I grew up, the horizons that opened up to me in college were almost unimaginable,” Belfield says. “In thinking about the long term, I decided that I wanted to do whatever I could in the academic world to help students discover the same potential and to benefit from the same opportunities, especially students who are the first in their families to attend college.”

Probing Research

Postdoctoral work in polymer chemistry took Belfield back to Syracuse, to the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and to Harvard University before he joined the chemistry faculty at the University of Detroit Mercy. In pursuing research supported by major organizations in the private and public sectors, Belfield became involved with an interdisciplinary effort funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research that changed the direction of his career. It was a project that brought together experts in fields that included chemistry and physics at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Biophotonics, including two-photon excitation imaging, was in the mix of technologies that the Air Force was evaluating for their practical potential, and it was work that drew on Belfield’s knowledge of chemistry and the expertise of researchers affiliated with the optics and photonics program at the University of Central Florida. It was also a relationship that led to Belfield joining the university’s chemistry department.

At NJIT, Belfield continues to explore the diagnostic frontier of two-photon fluorescence microscopy (2PFM). This technique, currently at a very promising pre-clinical stage, uses nontoxic small-molecule and polymer-based fluorescent dyes, or probes, to image living tissue, with the relevant data acquired by means of an optical fiber.

Dean Kevin Belfield with equipment used to evaluate the photostability of fluorescent probes formulated at NJIT as part of the effort to develop new, minimally invasive diagnostic technology.

Typically, near-infrared light is used to excite the fluorescent probes, with two photons absorbed with each excitation. Such multiphoton absorption significantly enhances the quality of the data that can be obtained, providing unique subcellular resolution in three dimensions.

One clinical application for 2PFM, which Belfield is developing with funding that includes a recent grant from the National Science Foundation of some $300,000, allows monitoring the effectiveness of therapies for inhibiting the growth of blood vessels that feed cancerous tumors. A key goal of the effort is to create new probes that greatly improve targeting selectivity and overall performance. 

High-resolution, in-depth imaging of the complex process of blood-vessel formation, or angiogenesis, can also be a valuable clinical aid for studying and monitoring wound healing. This is another application for 2PFM that Belfield and colleagues at several other institutions are collaboratively investigating. In this instance, the growth of new blood vessels is a positive indicator of healing.

With the assistance of students, Belfield prepares the probes for this work at NJIT. Experimental animal-model images provided by colleagues in Florida and in Europe are also analyzed on campus. For NJIT students, Belfield says, the project is an excellent opportunity for interdisciplinary research and education in advanced materials and microscopy techniques.

“We’re working together on a much less invasive and potentially more informative alternative to the biopsies that today are the only option in many cases,” Belfield says. “Researchers are looking at the technique for endoscopy, colonoscopy and bronchoscopy. It’s a way to gather critical information from any site in the body that can be reached by a thin, flexible optical fiber.”

Although the main focus of Belfield’s own research is currently 2PFM examination of angiogenesis, he does look ahead to the development of probes specifically formulated to image a growing range of processes in living cells, such as calcium and potassium cellular metabolism and signaling. “In time, we will have a diverse palette of very useful probes,” he says.

Outside of the Laboratory

Reflecting on his administrative role at NJIT as CSLA dean, Belfield speaks enthusiastically of the college’s span of programs, and involvement that extends to introducing high school students to the experience of research at a science and technology university during the summer.

“The college really does offer a unique mix of programs in an academic community that I think is very receptive to interdisciplinary education and research,” Belfield says. “Math is a good example. Members of the department are sharing their expertise with colleagues and students in virtually every other scientific discipline on really interesting projects. The opportunity to do whatever I can to encourage this is one of the things that made joining NJIT very appealing.”

In Belfield’s estimation, CSLA’s programs in the social sciences, history and humanities are also important for preparing NJIT students to succeed in the 21st-century workplace. “Employers are certainly looking for skills in science and technology. Yet they place equal value on the ability to communicate effectively, think critically, and bring broad, constructive perspectives to working in the global economy. Increasingly, the young men and women I meet at NJIT understand that study in these areas along with a STEM major is very valuable combination.”

By Dean Maskevich