Tony Reina ’89 has just tucked his two sons into bed. He heads downstairs where a stack of research is waiting to be carefully pored over. Taking a break from his work in medical research to be a stay-at-home dad for 12 years had been an easy decision for Tony, but not one that meant he had to give up his passions entirely. While his wife, Bryn, fulfilled her commitment to the United States Navy, owing at least 12 years of service after earning an undergraduate ROTC scholarship and attending military medical school, Tony put his career on hold to stay home with their kids. But, while the kids slept, Tony took advantage of every opportunity to keep his skills and industry knowledge sharp. He worked on open source and programming projects; he even patented a telemedicine device.
Tony and Bryn met at Boston University, where Tony earned a Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering. The mutual friend who introduced the couple had gone on to be a urologist for the Navy and one day called Tony with a proposal. He had an idea for virtual reality software that would allow for more effective remote collaboration between surgeons during live operations, and he asked if Tony, now several years into his full-time parenting job, could help him build it. So, each night after the boys’ bedtime, Tony worked on prototypes.
Not long after patenting his telemedicine device, Tony decided to go back to school. Bryn was nearing retirement, after 25 years of service as a Navy psychiatrist, and Tony wanted to prove that he was still relevant in the field before tag-teaming out of stay-at-home parenthood with his wife. In 2018, he graduated from the University of California, San Diego, with a master's degree in data science and engineering.
As a recent graduate, Tony was able to secure an internship at Intel in data science. Less than a year later, he was hired full-time as a machine learning engineer for deep learning algorithms, which are used as a tool to help diagnose disease. Most of Tony’s work is in brain tumor segmentation. “I teach computers how to read MRIs and X-rays and CT scans,” he explains.
“Imagine you’re in school and your teacher gives you a coloring book and crayons. She says, ‘With the orange crayon, color in all the cats. With the blue crayon, color in all the dogs. And with the purple crayon, color in all the brain tumors.’ You would somehow figure out what you needed to color in to do that, and that’s essentially what a radiologist does. They have to figure out what parts of the image are brain tumor and what parts aren’t. You can teach a computer to do the same thing.”
Tony’s algorithms identify and label which pixels in the scans are tumor, so doctors can discern whether a tumor is growing or shrinking and adjust the patient’s treatment accordingly. Deep learning algorithms have been around for a few decades, but the field has taken off exponentially in recent years. As chief AI architect, Tony helps to drive development and adoption of Intel's deep learning toolkit. He is responsible for over $3.8 million in sales in 2019, which more than doubled to over $8 million in 2020.
“I like the fact that I can walk into a hospital and wonder if some of my work is there in the machines,” he says. “It’s neat because that will live on.”
Tony has been making waves in medical research since his humble start as a college student. As an undergraduate, he had spent summers working with Dr. Edward Schmidt at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIND), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). His work involved developing a computer interface for tracking the perception of light when the primary visual cortex is stimulated in blind patients.
After medical school, Tony was on track to become a practicing internist, but during his third clinical internship rotation in San Diego, he realized that his true passion was in research. He reached out to Dr. Schmidt and told him about the change of plans. Dr. Schmidt eagerly introduced Tony to Dr. Andrew Schwartz at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. They worked together on brain-computer interfaces that allow paralyzed patients to control robotic arms.
"We figured out how the brain controls arm movements,” Tony explains. “You can record from the brain, decipher that recording, and move a robotic arm based on that. In our case, we were using monkeys, so we recorded the brains of monkeys while they were drawing. A few years after I left, they started human trials.”
Tony worked with Dr. Schwartz until Bryn completed her residency in San Diego. In 2002, Bryn received orders to Italy, so the two entered a new chapter together, and Tony began his next career as a stay-at-home dad. "It was a pretty easy decision for me," Tony says. "If you can do it, it’s a great experience. It’s an incredibly demanding thing being a stay-at-home parent, but it was an awesome decision."
Of all the things he’s achieved, Tony's proudest accomplishment has been raising his two sons.