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ECE PhD student Jin Gao receives $5,000 Provost Graduate Research Award

Jin Gao

Jin Gao, a PhD student in UIC’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, was awarded a Provost Graduate Research Award (PGRA) this semester for her research on a novel magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique that could be used for early identification of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease.

The Provost Graduate Research Award (previously called the Chancellor’s Graduate Research Award) supports multidisciplinary scholarship to expose students to varied research and creative fields. The award provides $5,000 funding “for pilot grants (or preliminary research) so that students can then have stronger applications for funding from external sources.”

ALS is a disorder that involves progressive degeneration of motor neurons in the motor cortex, brain stem and spinal cord. The disease typically progresses up from the limbs, along the spine. There is still no cure for ALS, but treatments and medications can slow the disease.

Gao is identifying microstructure changes of nerve tissue that can ultimately advance early diagnosis of the disease.

“MRI, as a noninvasive medical imaging method, has so many specialized configurations,” Gao said. “Diffusion-weighted MRI, which we use, is one of them. We are using advanced imaging protocols with a spectrum-like post processing algorithm to see the fine-level differences in diseased and non-diseased spinal cords.”

For her award-funded study, Gao will continue refining diffusion-weighted MRI scanning protocols for differentiating spinal cords in living animals with ALS, and monitoring disease progression from pre-symptomatic stage to early symptomatic stage.

Her overarching goal is to develop novel MRI techniques for noninvasive evaluation of neurodegenerative diseases. Gao has another study for Huntington’s disease, a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain, that examines a person’s susceptibility to the condition.

Gao came to UIC in 2015. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in food science and engineering from Inner Mongolia Agricultural University in Hohhot, China, but after an internship with a large dairy producer decided to continue her education, pivoting to another scientific field—or two. She received her Master of Science degree from UIC in bioengineering, and decided to stay at UIC to pursue her PhD in electrical engineering.

Since 2016 Gao has worked as a graduate research assistant in the MRI facility at the Research Resources Center, a division of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research at UIC. There, she performs MRI scanning and image post-processing, provides MRI safety training to new users, helps maintain the facility, and assists in developing new techniques to be implemented in the laboratory.

Gao is advised by ECE Professor Danilo Erricolo, the department’s director of Graduate Studies and the director of the Andrew Electromagnetics Laboratory. He is also an adjunct professor in UIC’s Bioengineering Department.

 After graduation Gao is open to a career in industry or academia, but knows she wants to maintain that balance between bioengineering and technical development.

“I want to be at the junction of two fields. I didn’t want to only know one side of it,” Gao said.

Visit the UIC ECE website to learn more about their PhD program.