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Young Caltech engineers recognized for innovative work in disease diagnostic technologies

PASADENA, Calif.California Institute of Technology (Caltech) graduate student Guoan Zheng is the recipient of the 2011 $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Caltech Student Prize.

Zheng was among the four $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize winners announced Wednesday, March 9. He was recognized for his innovative development of an on-chip, inexpensive microscopy imaging technology with many potential applications, including improved diagnostics for malaria and other blood-borne diseases in the developing world.

Zheng, a graduate student in electrical engineering working in the laboratory of Changhuei Yang, professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering, designed a simple, cost-effective, high-resolution on-chip microscope called a sub-pixel resolving optofluidic microscope (SROFM). The technology is suitable for biological research and enables more affordable clinical and field diagnostics. A prolific inventor, Zheng developed an additional low-cost 500-megapixel microscopy imaging system as well as a surface-wave-enabled darkfield aperture (SWEDA), a nanophotonic structure that can be used to boost the detection sensitivity of image sensors.

Zheng and two other finalists presented their inventions to a judging panel and the Caltech community on January 27. In his presentation, Zheng demonstrated his strong interest in the integration of complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology with image processing, computer vision, microfluidics, and nanotechnology for the design of next-generation low-cost biomedical imaging and sensing devices. His three inventions are all aimed at improving disease diagnostics in the developing world.

According to Yang, "Guoan is a terrific engineer and researcher. His most significant invention to date is his development of SROFM, an original and highly practical approach for designing microscopes. On a different front, Guoan has also paved the way for the next generation of pixel design with his highly innovative work on SWEDA."

Zheng was born and raised in Canton, China. He received his undergraduate degree with honors in electrical engineering from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, and his master's degree in electrical engineering from Caltech in 2008. Zheng is a coauthor on 13 peer-reviewed journal publications. Driven by what he sees as a need in the market for low-cost diagnostic tools, he plans to further develop his biomedical products with the goal of starting his own medical device company.

The Caltech selection committee also acknowledged finalist Wendian "Leo" Shi for the invention of the "μCyto," a portable lab-on-a-chip system for determining white blood cell counts for point-of-care diagnostics. Shi will receive a $10,000 award made possible through the support of Caltech alumnus Michael Hunkapiller (PhD '74). Also an electrical engineering graduate student, Shi works in the lab of Yu-Chong Tai, professor of electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

In his presentation, Shi described an innovative technology that provides a low-cost alternative to conventional blood counters. A five-part white blood cell (WBC) differential count is one of the most useful clinical tests performed in hospitals to directly evaluate how the immune system is functioning. Shi's low-cost, portable blood counter provides important diagnostic information for conditions such as leukemia, infections, allergies, and immunodeficiency, and can be used to monitor a patient's recovery during therapy.

Shi's technology is the first successful demonstration of a miniaturized blood counter with a complete WBC five-part differential, and it opens up new possibilities for providing basic medical care to people living in remote rural areas where medical diagnostic tools are not readily accessible. According to Shi, the system can be easily expanded to incorporate the diagnosis of many more diseases by transferring test results wirelessly to doctors in central hospitals.

Shi was born in Changchun, China, and earned his BS in microelectronics from Peking University in Beijing. He moved to California in 2007 to complete his master's degree in electrical engineering and continue graduate work at Caltech. Inspired by his mother's career as a doctor, Shi plans to work in the medical device industry and would like to start his own company in the field.

"The innovative work of Zheng and Shi illustrates the impact engineers can have on addressing the greatest challenges faced by our society. They are two electrical engineering students who have chosen to focus their research on improving diagnostic tools for diseases such as malaria and leukemia," says Ares Rosakis, chair of Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science and the Theodore von Krmn Professor of Aeronautics and professor of mechanical engineering.

"The Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize winners have shown their potential to invent broadly and bring new innovations into the world," says Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. "These inventive achievements and the students' creativity, persistence, and overall collaboration must be celebrated at the collegiate level."

Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize Recipients

Prizes were also awarded to students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, MIT, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The following winners of the annual Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize were announced March 9 at their respective universities:

  • 2011 Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize Winner

    Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize winner Scott Daigle developed a system that utilizes automatic gear shifting to reduce the efforts exerted by wheelchair operators. Daigle's company, IntelliWheels, Inc., has an entire suite of products to improve the everyday actions of wheelchair users.

  • 2011 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize Winner

    Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winner Alice A. Chen developed an assortment of innovations with promising drug development implications, including a humanized mouse with a tissue-engineered human liver designed to bridge a gap between laboratory animal studies and clinical trials.

  • 2011 Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize Winner

    Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize winner Benjamin Clough has demonstrated a new technique that employs sound waves to boost the distance from which researchers can use terahertz spectroscopy to remotely detect hidden explosives, chemicals, and other dangerous materials.


Contact: Deborah Williams-Hedges
California Institute of Technology

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