Alycen Wiacek, a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has won the 2019 Whiting School of Engineering: Research Trainee Award. The honor looks to highlight one graduate student or postdoc each year who has sufficiently shown the significance of their work to engineering, and displayed the progress they’ve made in their research.

Wiacek was announced as this year’s winner in front of a large crowd at the Johns Hopkins Department of Medicine and Whiting School of Engineering Research Retreat. She will receive a $500 reward for being selected.

Wiacek works in ECE assistant professor Muyinatu Bell’s Photoacoustic and Ultrasonic Systems Engineering (PULSE) Lab. She’s looking to create clearer breast ultrasound images by using coherence-based beamforming methods to differentiate between solid and fluid masses.

“A normal clinical ultrasound scanner just shows the brightness information,” Wiacek said. “Our new method takes advantage of some of the physical properties of tissues so we can see the fluid masses differently than the solid masses. This would help clinicians to decide if a patient needs a biopsy.”

Currently, false positive rates using ultrasound imaging alone, prior to biopsy are as high as 93 percent for breast cancer diagnoses, depending on the type of mass in question. Wiacek believes her work will one day lower that percentage drastically.

In addition to her colleagues within Whiting, Wiacek also collaborates with radiologists at the School of Medicine.

“It’s amazing to work with Dr. Bell, who has patented this technique and is one of the top engineers in this field. To have access to radiologists who are also some of the best in their field and get their feedback on our work has been extremely vital,” Wiacek said. “Similar collaborations may exist at other institutions, but I think being a teaching hospital and a research university makes Johns Hopkins unique. The clinicians are very eager to collaborate with engineers and see new research techniques come to life.”

Though her research would really help the work of doctors, Wiacek is additionally motivated by how it could improve the lives of patients.

“If patients come into a clinic and they have a mass but the clinicians aren’t sure if it is solid or fluid, they can use our method to give them more confidence in their diagnosis,” Wiacek said. “In the future, our approach will make it easier to determine if the mass is fluid, which is typically safe. This would alleviate a significant amount of stress and patient anxiety surrounding what would otherwise be an uncertain diagnosis based on standard ultrasound images alone.”

Wiacek’s work on this topic was recently accepted into the IEEE Transactions on Ultrasonics, Ferroelectronics, and Frequency Control [1].

[1] Wiacek, A., Rindal, O.M.H., Falomo, E., Myers, K., Fabrega-Foster, K., Harvey, S. and Bell, M.A.L. “Robust Short-Lag Spatial Coherence Imaging of Breast Ultrasound Data: Initial Clinical Results”. IEEE Transactions on Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics, and Frequency Control, 2018.