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.
Combining Passion for Research With Search for a Cure
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.”
The Importance of Teamwork and Communication
As a doctoral candidate at one of the finest centers of biomedical research in the world, Jiawen is constantly amazed at how lucky she is. “Here at UCI, I have access to not only the most updated medical and engineering techniques available; I can gain insights from the visionaries in my field. I am able to attend many leading edge academic conferences and discuss issues with “world class experts.”
While she does acknowledge that there was some anxiety when she first arrived here on campus, she points out how warm and encouraging fellow colleagues and faculty were. “Anytime one moves to a new country, there are bound to be challenges,” she says. “My ability to communicate clearly and effectively is critical and I have a wonderful team in my field of biomedical engineering.” According to Jiawen, teamwork is not only important - it is essential. Today, she is a chair of the international students committee for the Associated Graduate Students (AGS) where she strongly encourages students, especially those from other countries, to get involved, and to seek out answers. “Do not be afraid to ask for help.”
Last year, Jiawen served as an International Graduate Peer Mentor for the incoming International Graduate students. It was this experience that fueled her desire to become even more involved. As chair of the international student Committee, she is able to reach out to new international students from across the campus in her role. By providing specially designed services and activities for international graduate students, and in close collaboration with the graduate division and International Center, the AGS international students committee encourages and teaches new international students to get involved.
Learning to Say “Hello” to Opportunity
“When I look back over my academic career here at UCI and the many opportunities I have had, it brings home to me how fortunate I have been,” Jiawen says. She shares the recent example of how her advisor, Dr. Chen encouraged her to submit a manuscript on her research to the highly respected journal Nature. “After many days of working what seemed to be like 24/7, I was finally ready to submit the paper,” she notes. “The editor of Nature actually sent our manuscript to reviewers as soon as we submitted it.” This is a huge accomplishment given that only 20 percent of submissions are actually forwarded to reviewers. “While the editor ultimately decided to not accept the manuscript at this point, we are looking to resubmit after studying the reviewers’ comments.”
For Jiawen, the opportunity to submit an article as a primary author, and to have it reviewed by some of the brightest minds in academia, is reward enough at this point. Opportunity provides great experience. “I know there will be other opportunities and I will welcome them and be sure that I continue to take every advantage that may come my way.”
*home page photo of Jiawen courtesy of Paul Kennedy photographers.
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