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September 2019

Summer intern from China develops superpower at SFU — learns to see through skin

At a glance
The Team:

Yutian Zhang, senior undergraduate from the Harbin Institute of Technology in China

Professor Glenn Chapman, SFU Engineering Science

The Challenge:

Living tissue changes quickly and is difficult to test. And when light penetrates tissue, the light scatters and the resulting image is difficult to detect.

The Solution:

Use a synthetic material that can be better tested than complex tissue; the ultimate goal —improving medical imaging technology.

A senior undergraduate from the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, Yutian is visiting British Columbia this summer through the Mitacs Globalink program. She has been working at Simon Fraser University under the supervision of engineering science Professor Glenn Chapman.

Like a Marvel character’s super power, summer intern Yutian Zhang has been learning how to see through tissue.

However, unlike a comic-book hero, Yutian is working with a research team to develop a laser-based optical system and a special camera to see through tissue. The desired result would be improved medical technology for tissue imaging.

A senior undergraduate from the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, Yutian is visiting British Columbia this summer through the Mitacs Globalink program. She has been working at Simon Fraser University under the supervision of engineering science Professor Glenn Chapman.

His research focuses on using light to see through tissue with the long-term goal of finding abnormalities, such as tumours. Since most light does not damage tissue (X-rays do), the research could, if successful, lead to improved, safer, screening for mammograms and brain scans for example.

However, researchers in this arena face two significant challenges. First, living tissue changes quickly and is difficult to test. And second, when light penetrates tissue, the light scatters billions of times and the resulting image is hidden and hard to extract. This is like shining a flashlight behind your hand and seeing a red glow, but no articulated bone structure.

This summer Yutian has been working on both challenges in Dr. Chapman’s lab. She has been helping to create special materials called ‘Tissue Phantoms.’ These synthetic Jell-O-like materials sealed in plastic behave similar to living tissue when imaged. Further, they are very stable and last significantly longer, and therefore allow experiments to be replicated in a controlled environment. 

Yutian has been measuring samples of Tissue Phantom for optical characteristics of light — how much it scatters at several different wavelengths. Specifically, she has been doing experimental work with the optical laser and cameras for imaging, and analytical research of measuring the parameters of light within the test phantom.

The ultimate goal of the research is to improve the optical systems — laser and cameras — used on simulated tissue and improve the devices’ necessary sensitivity for medical applications.

Yutian’s research indicates that the key to successful optical imaging is the separation of the slightly scattered light, which carries information about the structure of the tissue through which it passes.

Her work will contribute to academic publications, help build improved experimental setups, and further the established research to improve medical imaging.

“I’ve been working with Mitacs for quite a while,” says Dr. Chapman, “I have a master’s student currently in my lab from Brazil who was a former Mitacs Globalink intern. All the Mitacs students have been great to work with.

“As a faculty-sponsor, I apply with the hope that maybe I can attract them to work in my lab long term,” says Chapman. “The extra benefit — beyond their research work — is if I get them to come to Canada for grad studies.”

If Yutian’s satisfaction with her experience is any indication of her future plans, Dr. Chapman may soon have another international graduate student.

“This project allows me to find what I’m really interested in,” says Yutian. “The work I’ve done includes practical experiments. Also, I have learned much about image processing.”

Yutian explains that in Dr. Chapman’s lab she has learned to appreciate the need for cooperation, collaboration, and communication to be successful in a research laboratory.

At 21 years old, Yutian has a clear sense of the path she wants to pursue.

“I think I will pursue a master’s degree in Canada. That would be my first choice.”

“This project combines engineering with medical applications. That’s what attracts me the most. If we can develop a better way to find a tumour in the human body, then that is very meaningful,” she says.

“My aim is to help people through biomedical engineering and improved image processing.”

 


Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, along with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of Manitoba, and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Globalink Research Internship program. In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with the following international partners to support Globalink: Universities Australia; Brazil’s Universidade de São Paulo; China Scholarship Council; Campus France; German Academic Exchange Service; Mexico’s Government of the State of Guanajuato, EDUCAFIN, and Tecnológico de Monterrey; Ministère de l'Enseignement supérieur, de la Recherche scientifique, des Technologies de l'Information et de la Communication de la Tunisie and Mission universitaire de Tunisie en Amérique du Nord; and Ukrainian-Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko.

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities: BD@mitacs.ca