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Yao Receives IEEE’s 2019 Young Investigator Award

Yao recognized for his innovative work in the field of photoacoustic tomography

Junjie Yao, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University, received the 2019 Young Investigator Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Established to honor a researcher who has made outstanding technical contributions to photonics prior to their 35th birthday, the award includes a certificate of recognition and an honorarium of $2,000.

“I’m very happy to represent photoacoustic imaging within the larger optical imaging field,” says Yao. “Previous awardees have completed impressive work within their respective fields, so I’m honored to be recognized with the Young Investigator Award.”

Yao is a pioneer in the field of photoacoustic tomography (PAT), a powerful imaging technology that uses short laser pulses and ultrasound waves to create detailed biomedical images. While other imaging technologies, like X-ray, CT scans or MRI provide larger anatomical images, photoacoustic tomography allows researchers to quickly and precisely image everything from a single cell to an entire body. In addition to this improved scalability, PAT allows researchers to gather functional and molecular information about their tissue and cellular targets. 

In 2015, Yao helped develop the world’s fastest photoacoustic imaging system, allowing researchers to visualize how the brain consumes oxygen. In his current role at Duke, Yao and his team are using the technique for functional brain studies to examine neurons, blood vessels and other structures in the brain. Their end goal is to create devices that animal models can wear, allowing researchers to use PAT to precisely image their brains as they respond and interact with various external stimuli in real time.

In addition to his neuro-based work, Yao and his colleagues are using the technique in clinical studies to track circulating tumor cells in the bloodstream. They are currently working to miniaturize PAT into wearable devices that can potentially seek and destroy malignant tumor cells, preventing the cancer cells from metastasizing to another area in the body.

“This technology really took off in the early 2000s, and there are still a lot of technical challenges that need to be addressed,” says Yao. “But it’s exciting to be in Duke BME and collaborate with the medical school on a clear purpose, which is advancing this technology towards the milestone of providing patient care. Duke has provided a very strong platform for our team to accomplish this goal, and I’m thrilled our work is being recognized.”

Yao will receive his award in September at the annual IEEE Photonics Conference in San Antonio, Texas. For more information, visit: https://www.photonicssociety.org/awards/young-investigator-award