Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering


Sandro Olivo

Professor of Applied Physics, Director of Studies, Undergraduate Tutor & EPSRC Challenging Engineer


Alessandro (“Sandro”) Olivo obtained his MSc (1995, summa cum laude) and PhD (1999) from the University of Trieste in Italy, and started his PhD after a stint as clinical physicist. After his PhD he was employed for 5 years by the same university to develop the imaging beamline at the local synchrotron. He then applied for a Marie Curie Fellowship, through which he moved to UCL and started translating synchrotron techniques into laboratory environments. 

Overall, Sandro has worked in x-ray imaging for 20 years, and is considered a pioneer in the field of X-Ray Phase-Contrast Imaging, having co-designed the in vivo mammography system operational at the Trieste synchrotron and invented the “edge-illumination” and “coded-aperture” methods. He has been awarded >£10M in research funding, published 175 papers, and given 90 conference talks/seminars, >50 of which were invited. Articles on his work appeared in Nature, Scientific American, Physics Today, Physics World.

Research Summary

Sandro Olivo’s current research is to a large extent based around the new method he invented to produce x-ray phase contrast images with conventional x-ray sources. X-ray phase contrast imaging (XPCI) is an extremely powerful x-ray imaging method, which utilizes refraction and interference (instead of conventional attenuation) to generate image contrast. As a consequence, it increases the visibility of all details in an image, and it allows the detection of features classically considered to be invisible to x-rays. XPCI can thus transform all applications of x-ray imaging in medicine, biology, material science, security, etc. The main roadblock was that XPCI was considered to be restricted to synchrotron facilities, due to the stringent requirements it imposes on the radiation source. Olivo's method overcomes this limitation, making real-world implementation of XPCI possible for the first time. Indeed, his research is becoming increasingly translational in nature, and he is currently looking into the commercialisation of his method in various areas (see “industrial collaborators” on the AXIm web page). At the same time, the technology is being developed further, and new “blue sky” approaches are being devised – typically at synchrotrons. Examples include:

• proof-of-concept studies in new areas of application, both in medicine and elsewhere (material science, non destructive testing, biology, cultural heritage, etc);

• quantitative phase and "dark-field" methods for precise material identification and characterization;

• new, "phase-based" contrast agents;

• new "ultra-sensitive" phase methods at synchrotrons worldwide;

• strategies to reduce radiation dose delivery based on the use of elastic x-ray processes. 

As well as the core activities in x-ray imaging, other areas of investigation are development and characterization of radiation detectors, image processing and image analysis.

Teaching Summary

As well as acting as Director of Studies, Sandro Olivo is responsible for the "Imaging with Ionising Radiation" module, available to all our UG programmes as well as to all streams of the MSc programme in "Physics and Engineering in Medicine". The module is also heavily attended by PhD and MRes students, as well as by students from other Departments/Faculties. He is currently 1st supervisor of 5 PhD students, and regularly supervises MSc and undergraduate projects.

During his previous employment at the University of Trieste he has been teaching classical mechanics, fluid and thermodynamics, electromagnetism, medical and biological physics to Undergraduate students in Architecture, Medicine and Biotechnology. He also spent one year teaching physics in technical high schools.

Academic Background

  • 1999 PhD Doctor of Philosophy – Physics Universita degli Studi di Trieste 
  • 1995 LAU Laurea – Physics Universita degli Studi di Trieste