Dr. Jim Gaines ’56: A Picture-Perfect Career

In a laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis, graduate student Jim Gaines ’56 needed a way to observe a quantum liquid—helium 3—beneath seven layers of stainless steel. He was able to do so through magnetic resonance, and thus Gaines produced the first image ever recorded through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), now a standard process in the health-care industry.

Jim Gaines poses for a photo with this award
photo by Jennifer Lance ’20

Dr. Gaines didn’t think much of the three-inch image at the time. “I thought it was cute,” he said of the picture that was produced. “My adviser did, too. Neither of us could imagine that it had any practical importance.”

To take a magnetic field from three inches to human size, said Gaines, would take technology far more advanced than what he was using. “The amount of computing power it took didn’t exist, and I couldn’t imagine it would ever get that much better.”

Gaines is this year’s recipient of the Berea College Distinguished Alumnus award that celebrates a lifetime of scientific advancement and achievement that began with what turned out to be an historic scientific milestone in nuclear magnetic resonance. Gaines continued his research via the Ohio State University (OSU), where he received the coveted Sloan Research Fellowship that enabled him to study under world-renowned nuclear physicist Anatole Abragam at Saclay in Paris, a hub for nuclear research.

Gaines has a storied history in Berea, dating back to boyhood before World War II. His father, Roland Gaines, had made a name for himself in the “hillbilly music business” in and around Berea, including nearby country-music hot spot Renfro Valley. Though he lived in Cincinnati and later St. Louis, Jim sang with his father on stage as a boy and spent his summers with his grandparents and relatives at homes near campus. He picked blackberries off Forest Street, frequented nearby shops and worked for his uncle, Jim, at Jim’s Place, a campus restaurant.

“The townspeople at the shops and stores knew me,” Gaines said. “They could report my activities to my grandfather, who was sort of the majordomo of the family.”

At 16, Gaines came to Berea College and majored in physics. He worked in the Boone Tavern garage, scraped trays in dining services, provided janitorial services in the chemistry lab and served as a teaching assistant for physics professor Tom Strickler, who set Gaines on a path toward graduate school.

“It was something I didn’t really want to hear,” Gaines said, “but Professor Strickler convinced me.” The most persuasive argument for continuing his education was the prospect of being his own boss. “I had enough of an independent streak that those were the words I needed to hear.”

Thus began a long and illustrious career in physics. During his tenure at Ohio State, Gaines also served as a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Linkoping University in Sweden, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Before accepting a professorship at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, he was chair of the User Committee at MIT’s National Magnet Lab and director of the National Science Foundation Materials Science Lab at OSU.

In Hawaii, he focused on materials science and the hydrogen isotope tritium, securing funding from the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and NASA. He retired from the University of Hawaii as the vice president for research. Currently, Gaines serves as emeritus professor of Physics at both OSU and the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Gaines has published more than 170 refereed journal articles on physics and materials science and has held several pioneering leadership positions. He was the first director of the National Science Foundation Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR); director of materials science at KMS Fusion; the first director of the Applied Physics Lab, the Navy’s University Affiliated Research Center in Hawaii; and the first director of the Department of Homeland Security Center for Maritime Awareness. In addition, he is one of the three founders of Lake Shore Cryogenics.

Dr. Gaines met his wife, Jo An Howard ’57, at Berea. They dated for a time and went their separate ways for 40 years. They married in 1995 and make their home in Los Angeles.

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