Yutian Zhang, a senior undergraduate from China’s Harbin Institute of Technology in China, has spent her summer as an intern with the Mitacs Globalink program, working with Simon Fraser University engineering science professor Glenn Chapman to develop a laser-based optical system and camera to see through tissue.

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Summer intern develops super power at SFU — learns to see through skin

September 12, 2019
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Like a Marvel character with super powers, summer intern Yutian Zhang has been learning how to see through tissue.

However, unlike a comic-book hero, Zhang is part of a research team developing a laser-based optical system, and a special camera, in order to see through tissue. The team wants to improve medical technology for tissue imaging.

Zhang, a senior undergraduate from China’s Harbin Institute of Technology in China, has spent her summer as an intern with the Mitacs Globalink program, working with Simon Fraser University 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 and 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, yielding an image that is hidden and hard to extract. This is similar to the effect of shining a flashlight behind your hand and seeing a red glow, but no articulated bone structure.

This summer Zhang has been working on both challenges in Chapman’s lab. She has been helping to create special materials called ‘tissue phantoms.’ When imaged, these synthetic Jello-like materials sealed in plastic behave similarly to living tissue. Further, they are very stable and last significantly longer, permitting experiments to be replicated in a controlled environment.

Zhang measured samples tissue phantoms to determine the 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 used for imaging, and conducting analytical research to measure the parameters of light within the test phantom.

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

Zhang’s research suggests 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.

“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 says that in Chapman’s lab she has learned to appreciate that cooperation, collaboration, and communication are essential to success  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,” she says. “If we can develop a better way to find a tumour in the human body, then that is very meaningful.

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