University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Sarah J. Nelson, PhD (1954-2019)

By Radiology.UCSF.edu | April 5, 2019

Sarah J. Nelson, PhD (1954-2019)

Sarah Nelson, PhD, made numerous contributions to cancer research at UCSF, most recently with the Precision Imaging of Cancer and Therapy Program.


from Christopher P. Hess, MD, PhD
Professor and Chair, Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging UCSF

It is with a very heavy heart that I share with you that Sarah J. Nelson, PhD, luminary imaging scientist, friend, and long-time faculty member in the UCSF Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging, passed away this morning after a valiant struggle with cancer.

Sarah completed her undergraduate degree in Mathematics at the University of Manchester and her doctorate in Biomathematics at the University of Heidelberg. She then worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia for 2 years before being recruited to UCSF in 1990 by chairman Alexander Margulis, MD to work at the newly-established Magnetic Resonance Science Center (MRSC). An innate leader and program builder, Sarah served during her tenure as the Director of the MRSC, co-chair of the Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, Director of the Surbeck Laboratory for Advanced Imaging, and scientific director for the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences.

The programs that Sarah built during her career are too numerous to count. She was recognized internationally for her seminal contributions to metabolic imaging, particularly in magnetic resonance spectroscopy, hyperpolarized 13C imaging and neuro-oncology. She published more than 270 papers in these areas. She was the inspirational force behind the installation of one of the world’s first 7T MR scanners at UCSF and also helped to bring hyperpolarized 13C technology to the institution. Through the more than 25 years of continuous NIH funding that she obtained, and the close partnerships that she cultivated with investigators in the UCSF Department of Neurosurgery and with corporate partners from General Electric and other companies, she established the brain tumor imaging program at UCSF, the Margaret Hart Surbeck Laboratory, and the Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences. Among the many distinguished accolades that she received, Sarah was a Fellow of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, a Distinguished Researcher of the Academy of Radiology Research, and a World Molecular Imaging Society Gold Medalist.

Sarah’s profound impact came not only through her many personal contributions to imaging science, but also through the careers of the mentees and protégés that she helped to launch. She was recognized at UCSF and in the MR community for her ceaseless willingness to share insights and advice with students, post-doctoral researchers and junior faculty, to use her influence to promote the advancement and success of others, and to help nascent scientists to overcome personal and professional challenges. As mentor to over 90 students and postdoctoral fellows, she received numerous distinctions for her teaching and mentoring, and many of her trainees have gone on to become leading imaging scientists around the world.

Today we lost a pioneer in imaging science, an extraordinary leader, an innovator and a scholar who shared her wisdom and knowledge generously. 

A UCSF memorial is being planned for this spring.

Read more at Radiology.UCSF.edu