James Greenleaf

MSES '66, Ph.D. '70
Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Associate Professor of Medicine, Mayo Clinic

Were honors granted for impressive numbers alone, James Greenleaf might run out of office space to hold his awards. Certainly, his slew of national awards from professional societies, as well as more than 450 published peer-reviewed articles, multiple books and 17 patents, speak to a prolific research career in biomedical engineering. Yet the far-reaching impact of his work — from lifesaving devices to the education of dozens of graduate students at the Mayo Clinic and Mayo Clinic School of Medicine — can hardly be measured or adequately rewarded.

Greenleaf, who grew up tinkering with electronics in the basement of his family’s Salt Lake City, Utah, home, likely had little idea where his engineering aptitude would take him. After earning his first engineering degree from the University of Utah, he says he was still exploring when he got to Purdue as a graduate student in 1964.  Through a Big Ten consortium agreement, he pursued a PhD granted simultaneously from Purdue and the Mayo Medical School in Minnesota (now the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine), where he has continued along a path of discovery for nearly half a century.

In the mid-1960s at Purdue, Greenleaf learned anatomy from a “wonderful veterinarian” who got him through one of his first dissections. During one Christmas break, he and some buddies traveled to California to watch the Boilermakers win the 1967 Rose Bowl. It was a high point of the years when he found his calling in the physiology and biophysics labs of Purdue — a calling that took him to Mayo.

For decades, Greenleaf has brought an innovative approach to his research into ultrasound-based medicine and therapeutics. He has led teams that developed and licensed modifications in ultrasound imaging instruments — modifications that made fast, inexpensive and noninvasive measurements of the elastic properties of tissues and organs.  These advances, in turn, provided biomarkers for assessing various maladies all over the world.  The Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE), recognized Greenleaf with the Rayleigh Award, one of the organization’s highest honors for pioneering research.

Greenleaf encourages the same deep thinking and relentless curiosity in his students. “One of my favorite things is sitting around a table with students and discussing their projects,” he says. “They’re all excited about their work, and it’s nice to be around creative minds.”

Through cutting-edge collaborations that have led to several worldwide Mayo patents, Greenleaf has adopted a teaching philosophy that reflects his own path. “I give students directions to go and find the trails themselves,” he says. “Should they need to, they can come back and restart a project, but when they leave my lab I like them to be independent enough to be on their own.”

Many of those former students have gone on to start their own companies in the medical field, making myriad impacts of their own. He says that their accomplishments, and the notoriety he often receives from students at international conferences, mean the world to him. “That means students from around the world know our work,” Greenleaf says. “That’s probably the biggest accolade I can get.”