July 13, 2020

Undergrad spends summer mastering her skills and knowledge

Daphne Hong takes classroom learning into the field and uncovers a hidden passion for health research

Reflecting on one’s own experiences is a vital part of the learning process. Reflection creates a capacity to mature and grow in a good way.

Daphne Hong is a Schulich School of Engineering student in her third year of electrical engineering with a minor in digital engineering. Hong has a clear understanding of how the summer undergraduate research program offered at the University of Calgary is changing the ways in which students approach learning.

Hong, pictured above left, is one of 450 undergraduate students participating in summer research projects.

The Alberta Innovates Summer Research Studentship  provides an experiential learning opportunity for Alberta undergrads who have an interest in health-care research.

As Hong takes her knowledge from the teaching space and learns how to apply it in the field, she is inspired by the decisive action of other researchers in her unit to help others.

Initially, Hong wasn’t quite sure what her participation in the studentship would look like, or aware of what deep learning research means to Canadians living with neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS).

Hong is aware of previous work done in this field. “I am thankful that I can take what I have learned thus far and use the studentship opportunity to participate and contribute to many years of past work,” says Hong.  

Deep learning 101

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) displays an enhanced image of the brain used for the diagnosis and early intervention of neurologic disorders such as MS.

Dr. Yunyan Zhang, MD, PhD, is Hong’s studentship supervisor. Zhang, pictured above right, is a research associate professor with the Departments of Radiology and Clinical Neurosciences and works with the MS Brain and Mental Health Team at the Cumming School of Medicine’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute. Zhang’s research focuses on the development and evaluation of novel measurement methods using imaging modalities, such as MRI, to promote the early detection and optimal intervention of MS and related diseases.

Studentship supports mentorship

Learning in an academic environment can be quite social, but with parts of UCalgary’s research and learning taking place remotely, the opportunities for face-to-face interaction are limited.  

Hong interacts with others through email. “You can ask questions, make comments and generally get a response right away,” says Hong.

Because of the nature of the work being so technology based and image heavy, Zhang says,“We have access to the high-performance computation resources of the university, which makes it even more streamlined to process these types of data in a remote setting.”

Zhang is mentoring Hong and supporting her project to optimize a technique called gradient-weighted class activation mapping to help understand the deep learning models being used in the Zhang laboratory to categorize different forms of MS using brain MRI scans of about 2,000 patients.

To complete the task, Hong needs to be skilled in Python, a programming language that can be used to develop software applications. Hong, who took courses on Python in her second year, says, “I am glad to have taken courses on different programming languages, one of which is Python. I had no idea I would be using it now, and I am still learning about it.”

Zhang makes an interesting comparison between experiential learning and the application of classroom knowledge in the field. When relating it to work being done on deep learning she says, “Pretend you are trying to teach an infant what a banana is. Eventually, after seeing a variety of bananas, the infant soon enough knows that what it is seeing is indeed a banana. We are all learning how to learn.

“We are fortunate to be working with such talented students — we received many applications, and it was hard to choose because all the applicants are so capable.”

Hong is captivated by the research opportunities in the medical field because of how health-care research creates positive impact and how that influences the connections to her engineering studies. Hong sees herself continuing to focus on health-care-related topics because she can combine what she is studying with what she enjoys doing.

“I am glad I have the opportunity to apply my new knowledge to a significant and special project. Canada has one of the highest rates of MS, and as of now, there is no cure. MS does not only have an impact on individuals with the disease, but there are also individuals close to them, such as family and friends,” says Hong.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain InstituteBrain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university.