Combining Passion for Research With Search for a Cure

As an undergraduate electrical engineering student at the prestigious Zhejiang University in China, Jiawen Li found her passion for research was propelled by the death of her beloved grandfather. His premature death from a cerebral stroke made a lasting impression on Jiawen and set her on a course to discover technology that can be used to help diagnose and perhaps prevent others from suffering strokes in the future.

Today, Jiawen Li is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine in The Henry Samueli School of Engineering, where she is studying under Professor Zhongping Chen. Her current research focuses on how Optical Coherence Tomography, or ‘OCT’, a light-based imaging technique, can be used for non-invasive early diagnosis of disease. Currently she is leading a group in Professor Chen’s laboratory that is using a multimodality intravascular imaging system (with OCT and Ultrasound imaging) to identify cardiovascular damage and heart attacks.

Medicine and technology are of great interest to Jiawen. Finding the intersection where technology can be used to help diagnose and prevent disease is something that she is passionate about. “OCT is attracting a good deal of interest among the medical community,” she notes. “One of the key reasons for this is the fact that it provides tissue morphology imagery at much higher resolution than other imaging techniques such as MRI or ultrasound.” In other words, advancements in technology are allowing for much more information to be understood and interpreted, without invasive procedures and with greater accuracy.

Bridging Two Worlds

Jiawen credits Professor William Tang as being a mentor to her with respect to guidance in career choice and career plan. In addition to Professor Tang, she praises her academic advisor, Dr. Zhongping Chen, for being the reason she selected UCI for her doctoral program. To Jiawen, he is the embodiment of a pioneer and researcher. “I have been reading his books and papers ever since I started my academic career and it is an honor to learn from him every day,” she says.    

When she was a junior in college, Jiawen had the opportunity to come from China and study at UCLA.  Convinced that she wanted to conduct her doctoral research at UCI she decided to take a visit to the campus.  “I took the train from LA and took four different buses to get to UC Irvine,” she chuckles.  “I visited Dr. Chen’s laboratory in the Beckman Laser institute (BLI), and the moment I saw the institute, I fell in love.”  

The Beckman Laser Institute (BLI) is a 37,000 square foot multi-disciplinary center for research, teaching, clinical medicine and technology transfer located on the campus of the University of California, Irvine. For Jiawen, the fact that the BLI is a division in the Department of Surgery in the School of Medicine and an important unit in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering, was a critical decision factor in her choice of UCI for her doctoral program.

Jiawen describes the BLI as a bridge between medicine and technology. She notes that the synergy between the medical profession and the engineering world is very strong. “Several well-known doctors have their offices there and they are very willing to discuss questions with biomedical engineering students,” Jiawen states.  It is this sense of collaboration between the medical community and the engineering community that makes UCI a perfect fit for Jiawen. “This is exactly what I wanted from a doctoral program.”

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