skip to main content

National Science Foundation fellows pursue research at ECE ILLINOIS


Ashish Valentine, ECE ILLINOIS

Lung cancer is frequently one of the most deadly forms of the disease, mainly because of its late detection rate. However, National Science Foundation fellow and ECE ILLINOIS graduate student Lonna Edwards is trying to change that by researching new ways to find tiny proteins that indicate the presence of diseases like cancer, called biomarkers. Her work could help doctors diagnose lung cancer much earlier, and could also make detecting it much cheaper and less invasive, ultimately saving lives from the disease. 

A number of other National Science Foundation (NSF) fellows are conducting similarly groundbreaking research at ECE ILLINOIS, namely Andrew Bower, Ryan Corey, Minji Kim, and Ross Liederbach.

The fellowships consist of a three-year annual stipend of $32,000, as well as $12,000 in tuition allowances paid to the university attended. It also allows the fellows to conduct their research at any accredited U.S. institution they choose. Graduate student fellows have gone on to win Nobel prizes and found highly successful companies, such as fellow Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google.

Edwards, working with Assistant Professor Gang Logan Liu, is looking into more effective means of finding lung cancer biomarkers using nanoscale imaging techniques.

Graduate student Lonna Edwards.
Graduate student Lonna Edwards.

“I chose to specifically detect lung cancer biomarkers because of the associated high mortality rate, which is thought to be caused by late detection of cancerous cells,” Edwards said. “The techniques used to detect lung cancer such as biopsies are also very invasive, and often lung cancer is not detected by conventional methods until it is already too late. Our devices, on the other hand, are not very expensive to fabricate, are noninvasive and could potentially be more effective at detecting cancerous cells at earlier stages than conventional methods. We’re still at the beginning basically of proving that the device works for this biological application, but so far it’s very promising.”

Bower is a graduate student working with Professor Stephen Allen Boppart. While Edwards is working on ways to catch cancer cells by looking for their biomarkers, Bower’s research focuses on finding another way to detect cancer cells and other biological objects by developing more sophisticated imaging techniques to identify body tissue and diseases at sizes that would normally be too small for conventional imaging methods to detect.

“Currently many research efforts have focused on using many imaging modalities to fully characterize tissue and identify disease for clinical purposes,” Bower said. “My research focuses on developing deeper analysis methods for quantifying, identifying, and studying disease and disease progression at the earliest stages with optical techniques.”

Boppart said this work can help researchers understand diseases better.

Graduate student Andrew Bower.
Graduate student Andrew Bower.

“We always say disease starts at the molecular level, it’s only detected very late because current imaging modalities detect tumors once they are already millimeters or centimeters in size,” he said. “Being able to detect and identify features of disease at a much smaller scale can help us understand how disease evolves.”

In contrast to Edwards and Bower’s work concerned with the early signs of cancer and the imaging of body tissues, Corey works with Professor Andrew Carl Singer on more purely electrical issues, researching ways to make circuits smaller. According to Corey, circuits normally behave deterministically, which means they take in an input and supply a corresponding output. However, “circuits are naturally noisy and unpredictable, so making them behave deterministically takes a lot of energy,” Corey said. 

“If we allow the output to have some uncertainty, which is acceptable in some signal processing and communication applications, we should be able to make the circuit much smaller and faster," he said. "I do theoretical work related to probability and random processes to help support circuit designers who are building these systems.”

Corey did not receive his fellowship the first time he applied, and encourages starting early and staying positive.

“My advice to students is this: Apply for fellowships, even if you don’t think you have a good chance of winning,” he said. “Seniors, in particular, should apply for this fellowship before they write their grad school applications. I didn’t win the fellowship my first year, or my second, but writing the fellowship essays helped me write better personal statements in grad school applications.”

Graduate student Kim is working on computational biology, specifically problems that can be solved with knowledge of information theory and machine learning. These projects typically involve finding new ways to analyze the genetic components of life itself, and encoding it into useful knowledge. Her most recent work is on metagenomic read compression, where the goal is to compress large amount of short DNA segments, often exceeding 500 gigabytes, in order to save on storage. Efficient compression methods will contribute to future genomic research by allowing researchers to produce and store more data.

Graduate student Minji Kim.
Graduate student Minji Kim.

“It is an exciting line of work as very few researchers have the training to apply new developments in communications theory to relevant problems in biology and big data,” Kim said.

“When I started my graduate studies at Illinois, my advisor Professor Olgica Milenkovic suggested that I explore computational biology, as there are many interesting open questions in the field may be solved in a unique and efficient manner,” Kim said. “I subsequently took MCB 150, the molecular and cellular basis of life, and was amazed at how similar, yet different and complex, biological information processing is to digital information processing and transmission.  It inspired me to apply my undergraduate background in information and coding theory to bioinformatics, which led to my current research.”

The National Science Foundation fellows doing research at ECE ILLINOIS are looking into a variety of concerns, ranging from designing more efficient circuits to developing imaging techniques to catch cancer cells earlier. According to many of the fellows, achieving this prestigious accomplishment comes down to persistence and positivity. Like Corey, Bower did not receive his fellowship the first time he applied for it, and as a result, his advice to students seeking the fellowship is “to be persistent.”

“I applied for this fellowship last year and did not receive the award,” Bower said. “After taking the advice given to me last year and redeveloping my proposal and other statements, my application was much stronger. There is always a bit of luck involved with these programs, but you have to give yourself the best chance you can.”