Three 2017 UI graduates who conducted research at the MNTL while pursuing their Ph.D.’s share their experience

Q&A with recent grads: Moving on to Apple, Harvard Med, and Houston research institute

Three 2017 UI graduates who conducted research at the MNTL while pursuing their Ph.D.’s at Illinois recently participated in questions and answers about their lives after graduation. Here’s what we asked Weili Chen, Caroline Cvetkovic, and Hojeong Yu, and how they answered . . .

Q: What are you doing now that you’ve graduated?

Chen: I am a sensing hardware engineer at Apple.

Cvetkovic: I am a postdoc fellow in Houston, Tex., in the Center for Neuroregeneration at the Houston Methodist Research Institute. The Center aims to find new strategies and techniques to address problems associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as stroke or spinal cord injury. I am working in the Astrocellular Therapeutics Lab with 3D stem cell co-culture models, electrophysiology, optogenetics, and animal models. We are collaborating with other institutions in the Texas Medical Center to translate these research findings into clinical solutions.

Yu: I am a postdoc research fellow at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital. I work with M.D.’s and researchers from various disciplines and am expanding my research to include developing practical clinical applications.

Q: What was your primary area of research while working in the MNTL?

Chen: Optics design and biosensor development.

Cvetkovic: Tissue engineering, 3D printing, soft robotics, and biomaterials to create living cellular systems made of hydrogels, muscle cells, and neurons — under the Nanomedicine and Biotechnology theme at the MNTL.

Yu: Mobile platform-based molecular analysis and disease detection.

Q: What attracted you to your UI research group?

Chen: The cutting-edge research by Prof. Brian Cunningham on optical sensors was very attractive to me when I first came to the U of I, and that was the primary reason I joined the group. My time there was a very meaningful period of my life.

Cvetkovic: I worked in the Laboratory of Integrated Biomedical Micro/Nanotechnology and Applications with Prof. Rashid Bashir and was attracted to the novelty of the research, interdisciplinary nature of the work, and the chance to integrate science and creativity.

Yu: I was attracted to many wonderful aspects of Prof. Brian Cunningham’s nanosensor group, including the group’s interdisciplinary research scope, the supportive facilities in the MNTL, and the enthusiasm of Prof. Cunningham for the research.

Q: What are some of your proudest accomplishments while at Illinois?

Chen: I published about 10 papers with my advisor and colleagues in MNTL. We provided novel optical biosensing systems for the next generation of biomedical detection tools. During my last year of graduate school, I worked with colleagues to develop a smartphone-based portable device for mobile detection of infectious diseases. Considering the increasing public concern about outbreaks of infectious diseases such as SARS, Ebola and Zika, this type of research can effectively address the demand for a simple, fast, remote, and accurate diagnostic methodology of infectious diseases. I feel pretty proud of the findings we made and results we delivered.

Cvetkovic: During my time at Illinois, I was funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Center (EBICS initiative), an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant from the NSF, and a Support for UnderRepresented Groups in Engineering (SURGE) fellowship. I am proud of my accomplishments, which also include a Top Presentation nomination at the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) annual meeting, an invitation to serve as sessions co-chair at the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine (TERMIS) World Congress, and a certificate from the Clinical and Translational Research Course for Ph.D. students at the National Institutes of Health, as well as participating in a summer research exchange at the National University of Singapore and a GEM4 workshop at the Imperial College London. Outside of the lab, I was involved in several scientific community outreach activities, and my Ph.D. research led to co-authorship on seven publications and more than 15 conference and seminar presentations.

Yu: My research suggested a novel way to develop next-generation disease detection and point-of-care diagnostic devices to save lives and overcome limitations of modern healthcare services. The research can significantly contribute to ensuring healthier lives of people all over the world, and that’s what I’m proudest of. And the importance of the research is evident in the more than 400 citations during the past five years! And recently, our latest paper on our mobile platform-based infectious disease monitoring and tracking system was selected for the cover of the journal Analytical Chemistry.

Q: Why did you choose the University of Illinois for your degree?

Chen: I think there is no doubt that the U of I is a top engineering school that provides sophisticated, comprehensive education programs to train the next generation of industry leaders. With my career goal of improving people’s lives through technology innovation, the U of I was definitely the right choice for me.

Cvetkovic: I earned my B.S. in Bioengineering from Illinois. Then, being selected for the IGERT fellowship convinced me to stay for my Ph.D., and I never regretted that decision. The collaboration, community, shared values of excellence, and worldwide recognition are unparalleled. It will always be my home!

Yu: The same reasons that interested me in joining Prof. Cunningham’s research group.

Q: What will you remember most about working at the MNTL?

Chen: The MNTL is a renowned research institute in the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology, and the most impressive part of my experience working there was the people. I enjoyed the environment of being surrounded by smart people, creating research plans, and talking about future directions.

Cvetkovic: The people. Even late at night, I could always find a friendly face at the MNTL. The staff worked tirelessly to ensure the well-being and success of the students.

Yu: I will most remember the great educational and research opportunities, nice colleagues, peaceful life in Champaign-Urbana, and fabulous support.

Q: What one piece of advice would you give to prospective UI students?

Chen: Stay positive, no matter what kind of frustrations you meet in life. Often, even a one-time success can make all the failures not matter.

Cvetkovic: For prospective students — expect to be challenged. It’s a way of life at Illinois, but the rewards are rich. For current students — get out of the lab (gasp)! Eat lunch on the Quad. Join a club or sport. The days are long, but the years are short. Enjoy your time here!

Yu: The U of I is one of the best places to make dreams come true, with amazing support, opportunities, and environments across the campus.