Caltech grad student's low-cost microscopy solutions earn him top prize

Among the four prize winners chosen, Caltech (Pasadena, CA) graduate student Guoan Zheng is the recipient of the 2011 $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Caltech Student Prize. A graduate student in electrical engineering, Zheng designed a sub-pixel resolving optofluidic microscope (SROFM), which is a low-cost, high-resolution on-chip microscope suitable for biomedical research, and the invention is said to enable more affordable clinical and field diagnostics. Zheng's other low-cost inventions include a 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.

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 (Ph.D., '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.

"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 Kármán 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.

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Posted by Lee Mather

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