Xu receives prestigious fellowship from Howard Hughes Medical Institute

ECE News

Daniel Dexter, ECE ILLINOIS
7/30/2015

Story Highlights

  • Xu's goal is to be able to lower diagnostic costs and make imaging systems more affordable for less developed regions.
  • HHMI, located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is one of the largest privately funded medical research facilities in the United States.
  • With the variety of imaging resources available at Illinois, Xu was able to progress his research to new heights that he hopes will benefit the medical community.

When Yang Xu learned of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) international student fellowship, he didn’t hesitate to start writing a new research proposal.

Yang Xu
Yang Xu

HHMI, located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is one of the largest privately funded medical research facilities in the United States. It established the International Student Research Fellowships Program in 2011 to support international students during their third to fifth years of graduate school in the United States. Since then, the Institute has invested $20.8 million in the program, and is currently supporting a total of 231 students from 46 countries.

Xu, one of only 45 students selected for the fellowship, first learned about HHMI when he was in high school and calls the fellowship a dream come true.

“It feels great that my previous work in the field and my potential as a future scientific leader are recognized by the prestigious medical institute,” Xu said. “Receiving it not only gives me the funding for my future research in the biomedical imaging field, but also the valuable opportunities to meet and exchange ideas with many HHMI investigators and fellow researchers.”

P. Scott Carney
P. Scott Carney

At Illinois, Xu’s research focuses on combining his electrical and biomedical engineering background to create algorithms for biomedical imaging systems. His goal is to be able to lower diagnostic costs and make imaging systems more affordable for less developed regions.

He plans to take his research a step further by trying to improve the tumor margin assessment process of lumpectomy surgeries for breast cancer patients. In a lumpectomy, the surgeon attempts to remove just the tumor from the breast tissue. However, in about 20 to 30 percent of patients, a re-excision is required because of inaccurate information about the location of the tumor.

Xu hopes to drop that number drastically with a new imaging technique he will embark with the help of Professors P. Scott Carney and Stephen Allen Boppart. His work will develop a computational imaging modality that creates 3-D susceptibility tensor maps of biological tissue. The imaging system will be able to distinguish normal tissue from cancerous tissue.

“After it is developed, it promises more accurate feedback in terms of sensitivity and selectivity, and can significantly shorten the wait time of tumor margin assessments during surgery of breast cancer lumpectomy, leading to a reduction in the reoperation rate by a dramatic amount,” Xu said.

Stephen Allen Boppart
Stephen Allen Boppart

Additionally, Xu will be working on an algorithm to improve the sharpness of imaging technology to make it easier to read. As a result, inexperienced surgeons will require less training to learn the technology.

“It is just like the auto mode on a camera, where the software automatically brings your target into focus, chooses the right aperture number, sensitivity, and exposure time for you at the click of a button,” Xu said. “It could significantly reduce the training requirements and workload for the surgeons or pathologists using such systems, so that they can focus on more important aspects of their work.”

Xu believes that his experience at Illinois will serve him well in his fellowship at HHMI. With the variety of imaging resources available at the University, Xu was able to progress his research to new heights that he hopes will benefit the medical community.

“We have several top-notch teams and world class imaging laboratories working on various biomedical imaging technologies,” Xu said. “The vibrant atmosphere at Illinois inspired a lot of my new ideas and collaborations with other groups. There are also many excellent courses where you can see the big picture and gain deep insights into various technologies that could be very useful in my research.”

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