Two Physics Majors Apply Their Skills in Medical Realm

Alisa Giardinelli

Two Physics Majors Apply
Their Skills in Medical Realm

by Alisa Giardinelli
7/20/11

Xingda Zhai '13
After Xingda Zhai '13 helped run measurements before surgery on a neonate with a congenital heart defect, the surgeon personally invited him to stay and observe the procedure.

This summer, Xingda Zhai '13 and Xingyu (Alex) Zhang '12 are seeing firsthand how the concepts and practices they've learned as physics majors can be applied in a medical context. In the process, they have expanded their understanding of how research is conducted outside of a classroom environment.

Zhai, an honors physics and engineering major from Singapore, worked on perfecting the control environment for an instrument that uses laser light to record blood flow velocity and concentrations of oxy- and deoxyhemoglobin. The work, perhaps not surprisngly, involved a lot of trial and error.

"There were a lot of practical difficulties in getting clean and workable data, especially in the clinic when we were working with newborns," Zhai says. "When we did get good data, they sometimes would give surprising results we had to find explanations for. It is apt to quote Albert Einstein: 'If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research, would it?'" 

Alex Zhang '12
"From assembling optical devices to titrating target samples," says Alex Zhang '12, "I realized that behind every batch of experimental data lies a tremendous amount of brainpower, willpower, and, at times, even manpower. I also came to appreciate the effort and creativity that goes into even the most straightforward parts of experiments."

Zhang, an honors physics major and math minor from Pullman, Wash., is also working on a device that uses laser light that, in his case, images human breast tissue. His work consists primarily of experimental work, but also includes applying theory for data analysis and to guide the design of experiments. One of his recent tasks involved analyzing tens of thousands of images to gauge the quality of the data collected. Using algorithms learned in his classes, he processed the images in 40 minutes and describes the result as "deeply satisfying."

Zhang says he also learned the value of professional disagreements among team members. "Disputes produced not only the best solutions to challenging issues, but also provided a good way to learn new material," he says. "In fact, some of the most memorable parts of my summer are from the losing side of an argument."

To conduct their work, Zhai and Zhang joined physics professor Frank Moscatelli at the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter at the University of Pennsylvania. Moscatelli, a collaborator on a biomedical physics project in the lab of professor Arjun Yodh there, frequently invites students to participate in summer research projects to gain experience not often available to undergraduates. Both also received fellowships to support their summer research from the College's science education grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.