Public Impact Fellowships Awarded to Samueli School Students

Lugin, far left, won a Public Impact Distinguished Fellowship. Li and Toh are Public Impact Fellows.

Dec. 19, 2019 - Margaret Lugin, a Samueli School chemical and biomolecular engineering doctoral student, was named a 2019-20 Public Impact Distinguished Fellow by UC Irvine’s Department of Graduate Studies. Lugin was one of four UCI students selected to receive the $12,000 fellowship based on her research, which is deemed to have a substantial impact on local, national or global communities.

Two other Samueli School graduate students were among 10 additional researchers campuswide who won $1,000 stipends as 2019-20 Public Impact Fellows. They are Christopher Toh and Yan Li, both of whom are in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Lugin, who earned her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with a minor in French from the University of Michigan, focuses on using gene therapy, which targets mutations in cancer cells, to treat cancer. Unlike chemotherapy, the treatment does not affect healthy cells.

She uses a virus encapsulated in a non-viral shell, which masks the virus from the immune system and which breaks down once it is inside a cell. The shell also contains RNA, and Lugin says with both the virus and the RNA inside a particle, the approach allows a two-pronged attack on cancer. “This project has shown [itself] to be effective at killing cancerous cells, while not affecting healthy cells. This can reduce side effects and increase the likelihood of success of the treatment,” she added.

Lugin, who is advised by Young Jik Kwon, professor of pharmaceutical sciences, has tested the platform on leukemia, breast cancers, lung cancers and melanomas. “When combining the particles with tyrosine kinase inhibitors (a targeted form of chemotherapy), we found that the particles and drug work synergistically. I hope this combined system will lead to fewer side effects for cancer patients, and give them a better chance at beating the horrible disease.”

In addition to her research, Lugin has worked for the past two years as a managing editor on “The Loh Down on Science,” a radio program that uses humor to explain science. “It's really helped with my science communication and is a great opportunity for students in the sciences,” she said, adding that she was “honored and grateful,” to receive the distinguished fellowship. “This award will allow me to spread my work to a larger community. Expanding scientific knowledge to the world at large is empowering for all of us.”

Li, who earned a degree in electronic science and technology from Tianjin University in China, is developing a comprehensive intravascular imaging device that can identify plaque, the cause of most heart attacks, in blood vessels. Her device combines photon and ultrasound, which can obtain structure and composition of arterial tissue simultaneously, and provide a quantitative way for clinicians to identify vulnerable lesions, tailor intervention therapy and monitor disease progression.

“I am beyond grateful to receive this fellowship, which not only supports my study, but also recognizes the public impact of my research and encourages me to advance intravascular imaging techniques to improve patient care,” she said.

Li, whose adviser is professor Zhongping Chen, also is the recipient of a 2020 two-year American Heart Association postdoctoral fellowship directed toward her research. The $128,000 is helping her develop and test the integrated intravascular ultrasound/polarization-sensitive OCT device for evaluating atherosclerotic plaque.

Toh, a doctoral candidate who is advised by James Brody, biomedical engineering associate professor, earned his bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from UCLA. His research focuses on inherited genetics and the application of machine learning to better predict and understand how genetics affects complex diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and more. He uses datasets including the Cancer Genome Atlas and the UK Biobank, seeking to give patients and physicians better insight and predictive tools to identify risk for certain diseases. Toh says this information can help patients make preventative lifestyle changes and allows for earlier disease screening.

“I was deeply humbled to receive this award and am incredibly grateful for the support of the faculty here at UCI,” Toh said. “The Public Impact Fellowship will enable me to help build and improve upon our health care by understanding the complex nature of our own bodies. It will also help me share and educate others regarding what is possible in the new information age that we live in. This fellowship will allow me to continue exploring the complex web of how human genetics works with the goal of finding solutions to some of the most difficult diseases.”

- Anna Lynn Spitzer