REU Students Gain Imaging Research Experience, Professional Development

The University of Illinois hosted 10 undergraduate students this summer for a 10-week Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). The program, “Frontiers in Biomedical Imaging,” is credited with benefiting both the visiting undergraduate students and their Illinois graduate student mentors.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), this year’s program, which ended Aug. 4, is the first year of a second three-year REU program focused on imaging hosted by Illinois.

The program provides the visiting undergrads with research experience with graduate student and faculty mentors, as well as exposure to a different academic environment than their home institution, said Marina Marjanovic, the program’s co-PI and the associate director of the GSK Optical Molecular Imaging Center. Participants also are immersed in professional development, and the program is designed to give first-hand knowledge of what it is like to be a graduate student, she said.

 Yang Zhu, a Ph.D. student in bioengineering, (left), and Janee Phillips, a junior in bioengineering at North Carolina A&T University
Yang Zhu, a Ph.D. student in bioengineering, (left), and Janee Phillips, a senior in bioengineering at North Carolina A&T University, were partnered for the Research Experience for Undergraduates at Illinois, which is focused on advanced imaging. The pair demonstrate the SonixRP machine, which provides ultrasound capabilities with various parameters for research. They use the machine to acquire raw data and then process the data on a computer to access a “perfusion image,” which depicts the slow, disorganized blood flow in tissue. 
(Photo by Doris Dahl)

“The unifying link between science, discovery, and biomedical imaging is the centerpiece for our program,” Marjanovic said. “It is dedicated to inspiring and training undergraduates in STEM fields through a summer research experience.”

Andrew Smith, an associate professor of bioengineering and associate head for Undergraduate Programs, is the PI for the program. He believes the benefits for all participants—undergraduate and graduate students—are immeasurable.

Undergraduate students in this REU program are given a deeply enriching educational experience that expands well beyond what is available through a typical undergraduate degree program,” Smith said. “Close mentorship and training by a graduate student, mentorship from a faculty member, hands-on research in a world-leading laboratory environment, presentation of research outcomes at a major national society meeting, and twice-weekly professional development activities are all devised to provide students with an experience that allows them to make informed decisions about their careers and graduate school opportunities.

 Shachi Mittal, a Beckman Institute Graduate Fellow, (left), and Juan Munoz, a junior in biomedical engineering at Mercer University
Shachi Mittal, a Beckman Institute Graduate Fellow, (left), and Juan Munoz, a senior in biomedical engineering at Mercer University, worked together this summer through the REU. They are standing next to the QCLM in-house imaging system that was used to collect the samples analyzed by Munoz during the summer.
(Photo by Doris Dahl)

“Graduate students likewise learn how to provide mentorship to trainees that is not usually available as part of academic experiences in graduate school.”

With only 10 students selected from more than 100 applicants each year, participants are among the best undergraduates in their fields.

“Our REU program is a unique opportunity to bring some of the top undergraduate students from around the country to our campus and encourage them through biomedical imaging to pursue graduate degrees,” Marjanovic said. “This is the perfect opportunity to expose them to the graduate research lifestyle, particularly students from the underrepresented groups and smaller colleges.”

Marjanovic agrees that the program’s benefits extend to the graduate student mentors.

“The graduate students engaged in their mentoring role, gain a new component in their professional development,” she said. “This experience helps them to realize how much they really know and to assess the progress in their graduate research. They also appreciate the efforts of REU students in advancing their own research.”

Janee Phillips, a senior in bioengineering at North Carolina A&T State University, participated for the second year and was paired with graduate mentor, Yang Zhu, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in bioengineering. Mike Insana, a professor of bioengineering was Phillips’ faculty mentor. Both Insana and Zhu are members of Beckman’s Bioimaging Science and Technology Group (BST).

“This year our project focuses on using ultrasound to measure the flow-mediated dilation of the brachial artery and perfusion inside the muscle, which is very challenging because capillaries are tiny and blood velocity is super slow,” Zhu said. “We believe this project could potentially help us detect endothelial disorders caused by various diseases, such as diabetes.”

“The current technique used to assess endothelial function is computed tomography angiography, which uses CT and a radioactive dye which can be harmful,” Phillips said. “We would like to use ultrasound in place of this procedure in the future.”

As is the common theme among participants, the benefits for Phillips extended past the research.

“This experience has been a major blessing. I have met many people who are in the same place as me—a rising senior not knowing what to do after graduation—and it let me know I’m not the only indecisive one,” she said.

“I’ve learned a lot about graduate school throughout the summer and also about industry. This fall, I plan to apply for full-time positions as well as graduate school. My end goal is to return to the U of I as a medical student in the new engineering-focused Carle Illinois College of Medicine.”

Zhu also benefited from the program and observed Phillips’ personal growth since last year.

“Compared to last year, I can definitely tell that Janee has become much more professional in doing research. I am really amazed by her improvement,” Zhu said. “As a graduate mentor, it helped me organize my existing knowledge because I was teaching someone else. And during that process, I also got a bettering understanding of my own research.”

Juan Munoz, a senior in biomedical engineering at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, worked with Shachi Mittal, a Beckman Institute Graduate Fellow, and Rohit Bhargava, a professor of bioengineering and the director of the Cancer Center. Mittal and Bhargava also are BST members.

“This summer I worked on optimizing machine-learning models for chemical imaging-based diagnostic models,” Munoz said. “I did a lot of computational work using two programs—one used for image analysis and marking and one used for the machine-learning model. Our main goal was to identify ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is essentially saying we wanted to identify breast cancer early on.”

“This experience has been really great. Shachi was a huge help. She taught me so much,” Munoz said. “I have learned more than I could have imagined in a field I never even knew existed until this summer. I also learned what it's like to be a graduate student and the independence that comes with it.”

Mittal, Munoz’s graduate mentor, said the REU experience was “very good.”

“This was my second time as an REU mentor,” Mittal said. “The most important aspect of the experience for me was to be able to understand the student's strengths and weaknesses and accordingly update the action plan to make it productive for both. This helps build new perspectives.

“For Juan and other students, the REU program is an opportunity to briefly dive into the research environment helping them make an informed career choice and also motivate them to solve problems that matter.”