November 02, 2023
CMU alumnus and National Senior Games athlete Frank DiBianca throws himself into an active life
By Heidi Opdyke
Newton’s first law of motion — an object in motion stays in motion — applies to people, too. Carnegie Mellon University alumnus Frank DiBianca is constantly pushing forward in his life.
As a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and dean of the College of Health Science Engineering at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis, Frank led teams through advancements in computerized tomography and biomedical engineering.
For the past decade, he has been pushing himself through physical feats such as competitive running and hammer throwing.
“I know that my step isn’t as secure as it used to be, but just sitting down, I don’t feel much different than I did in high school,” says Frank, a Mellon College of Science graduate.
Originally from New Jersey, Frank attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to earn his bachelor’s degree in physics. A member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, he was promoted to lieutenant junior grade and served on a U.S. destroyer as part of the Naval Quarantine of Cuba in 1962. He applied for graduate school in physics from the ship.
“I applied to half a dozen programs and was fortunate to have been accepted into all of them,” Frank says. “I considered mainly the quality of the educational and research programs, the faculty and the financial aid offers. CMU — then Carnegie Institute of Technology — won hands down.”
“I really loved my time at CMU, especially the people I worked with. We didn’t have a lot of competitiveness amongst ourselves. The graduate students would take time from the projects to help each other, and the faculty would also come in and take time to help.”
After earning his master’s and Ph.D. in high-energy physics in 1966 and 1971 under the guidance of Robert W. Kraemer, he accepted postdoctoral fellowships at Case Western Reserve University and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory known as Fermilab.
“I really loved my time at CMU, especially the people I worked with,” Frank says. “We didn’t have a lot of competitiveness amongst ourselves. The graduate students would take time from the projects to help each other, and the faculty would also come in and take time to help.”
Frank joined General Electric Medical Systems as the first member of its Applied Sciences Lab. The lab’s mission was to perfect the computerized tomography (CT) scanner. While versions were already on the market, the devices were slow and inefficient.
“GE wanted to get all of the data in 10 seconds that everyone else was getting in five minutes,” he says.
He and the team refined GE’s approach, and since 1981, the 9800 CT scanner system, which Frank designed, has been used in tens of millions of examinations. At GE, he also invented two types of X-ray detectors. He holds more than 20 patents garnered throughout his career.
“The mathematics and complexity of understanding modern physics is more difficult than any other technical field that exists,” Frank says. He took knowledge learned during his high-energy nuclear physics studies and used that to calculate how X-rays were interacting with humans being scanned.
“Some of the time, the X-rays bounce around multiple times before they come back out,” he says. “I understood all of that and could calculate what that would look like to remove the scattered radiation and create more crisp images.”
“One of the physical principles that we’re very interested in both for discus and the hammer throw is called angular momentum. If you increase your hand distance from your body by 10% while you’re turning around, it’s the same as spinning 10% faster.”
The Science of Sport
In his 50s, Frank flew sailplanes and ran 5Ks. In his 70s, he started his track and field career, following in the footsteps of his wife of 53 years, Kay. Frank’s latest event was the 2023 National Senior Games, an Olympic-style competition for athletes age 50 and older.
For the event, which took place in Pittsburgh in July, Frank qualified for the 400-meter and 800-meter races as well as the discus and hammer throw events.
“One of the physical principles that we’re very interested in both for discus and the hammer throw is called angular momentum,” he says.
Angular momentum is the property of any rotating object given by moment of inertia times angular velocity. Most discus throwers spin around prior to the point of release. The farther their hand is from their body, or the faster a thrower spins, then the more angular momentum is created.
“If you increase your hand distance from your body by 10% while you’re turning around, it’s the same as spinning 10% faster,” Frank says. “With the hammer, of course, you’ve got the same deal.”
Frank picked up the hammer in 2013 after watching competitors in the National Senior Games in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2015 and 2017, he placed third and earned bronze medals at nationals. In 2019, his throw of 90 feet, 5.05 inches earned him silver.
“There are other guys who are much bigger and stronger than Frank, but because he really appreciates the technique, that’s how he can get the distance,” says Kay of her husband’s achievements.
Now in his 80s, Frank is adding novelist to his list of accomplishments. His first book, “Laser Trap,” is a thriller that draws inspiration from his time as a graduate student, and a couple of characters are recognizable to a few of his Carnegie Mellon friends.
“The name of the chief character’s adviser is R.W. Kromer,” Frank says. “So as soon as Robert W. Kraemer (former head of Mellon College of Science’s Department of Physics) saw the book, he knew it was representing him. He got a big kick out of that.”