Cancer-Fighting Terahertz Technology Attracts Undergraduates
The fight against breast cancer is not over yet for researchers at the University of Arkansas.
Statistics show that breast cancer represents 11.6 percent of all cancer cases with more than two million estimated new diagnoses around the world last year alone.
Researchers continue the race to use high technology to defeat breast cancer in early stages. Magda El-Shenawee, professor of electrical engineering, and her team have become pioneers in using terahertz imaging and spectroscopy to image breast cancer tumors that are surgically removed through conservative breast surgery.
El-Shenawee wants to advance terahertz imaging and spectroscopy to be able to see and remaining cancer in the breast. She and her team of researchers are working tirelessly to solve the challenge in differentiating between cancerous and healthy tissues in freshly excised tumors; that until now succeeded with 50 percent rate.
Her goal is to increase this rate to 90 percent or more through multidisciplinary collaboration with biomedical engineering, material science, stochastic signal processing and computer science researchers.
El-Shenawee has been known to continuously recruit bright and talented undergraduate students, like Igliana Castillo and Jose Santos, to join her research group.
Undergraduates Join Life-Changing Research
For them having the opportunity to work as undergraduates on breast cancer research and on novel terahertz antennas that could impact millions of lives has become a vital foundation for their futures.
At a young age, Castillo and Santos, both from Santiago, Panama, knew they wanted to make an impact in the world, but didn’t know where to begin until they stumbled upon electrical engineering.
Their curiosity for a science-based field began in high school. During that time, Castillo and Santos said they enjoyed courses in math and physics and wanted to pursue a profession that would let them follow that passion.
“I was good at numbers but I was more interested in how I could apply them,” Castillo said. “I had a professor who encouraged me to pursue something in engineering.”
After graduating from high school, Castillo and Santos applied and received the “PreGrado De Excelencia”, a government-funded scholarship for Panamanian students interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree abroad, to study at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Castillo said she chose the U of A because of the opportunities for her to work on a variety of research areas within electrical engineering.
“I really liked the University of Arkansas because of the research facilities,” Castillo said. “It was one of the few universities that had a research center for more than one area in electrical engineering, and I knew it was a really broad field and I wanted to explore as much as I could.”
Santos said after researching the U of A, he knew that it would fit his academic needs.
“I saw that it was a well-ranked university, and it offered a high-quality education,” Santos said.
Castillo and Santos found themselves fascinated with the material they learned from El-Shenawee because they were able to visualize topics like physics, math and other applications working together.
After taking the course, they decided to work with El-Shenawee on terahertz technology for medical imaging of breast cancer and on innovative terahertz antennas, which both students agreed was one
of the best decisions they have made.
“Working with Dr. El-Shenawee is having a professor, advisor and someone who knows the technical sides and, most importantly, having a partner because we all have that open communication and we’re consistently in touch as a team and that was so important for us,” Santos said.
As part of this research and his undergraduate honors thesis, Santos worked on developing novel terahertz antennas, which El-Shenawee said leads the technology of terahertz imaging, while Castillo worked on developing a terahertz imaging methodology for margin assessment of freshly excised breast cancer tumors.
Castillo and Santos worked on separate projects but with the same purpose of using antennas to get accrete images to improve the method of detecting things like breast cancer, which Castillo said impacted her on a personal level.
“The project I worked on was important to me, it’s not just a project that I have to do to get a degree,” Castillo said. “Being able to work with a cutting-edge technology that can help patients get better results or get healed faster is meaningful to me and I think that if it wasn’t for Dr. El-Shenawee’s research I wouldn’t have even known about this technology.”
El-Shenawee said she has introduced this innovative technology to many undergraduate students.
“I started working with undergraduate students since I started here as an assistant professor, almost 19 years ago,” she said. “When I come across bright and talented undergraduate students, I immediately wonder if they’re interested in joining my research group to learn and help.”
For El-Shenawee, giving students the opportunity to learn outside of the classroom by providing real-world tasks is extremely important.
“Joining an experimental research group provides students with hands-on experience something they may not have the opportunity to do in a classroom or in an undergraduate lab,” she said, “It also helps students to see what graduate-level work looks and feels like, and it gives them the choice to decide if they want to become graduate students or join the industry once receiving their bachelor’s degree.”
Her former undergraduate researchers have gone off to work for major companies like Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin and others.
The next step for Castillo and Santos is graduate school. After this experience, they both decided to continue their work with El-Shenawee on the terahertz technology for medical imaging related to breast cancer.
“I think that having research experience is something that every student should at least have, “ Castillo said, “because what you see in the classroom can be really technical but then when you come to a research lab and you see what they are doing your mind will be blown.”
Santos said working on this research as part of his honors thesis influenced his life immensely.
“My terahertz antenna honors project not only helped me widen my knowledge, but it also pushed me to develop new skills,” Santos said. “In short, being an honors student introduced me to a research environment, where I will apply concepts studied in class to solve real-life challenges.”