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A biomedical researcher and a modern-day Renaissance woman

Hoffman (front), here enjoying a surprise classroom visit by the Marching 97, completed bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering and anthropology through Lehigh's arts-engineering program.

In the fall of 2012, in a course called “Introduction to Process Control and Simulation,” Joanne Hoffman became intrigued by automatic control techniques and their application to biomedical problems.

The following spring, Hoffman received her B.S. in chemical engineering, her second bachelor’s degree from Lehigh.

Today, she is working alongside some of the world’s leading biomedical researchers at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where she has a fellowship in the post-baccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) program.

The highly competitive fellowships, awarded to just 10 percent of applicants, enable recent college graduates who hope to attend graduate or professional school the chance to spend one or two years doing biomedical research full-time at the NIH.

Hoffman’s work at NIH involves the computer-aided detection of disease, an area of research that could one day help radiologists make more informed decisions about the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Mapping out the body

Hoffman focuses on the mediastinal lymph nodes, which are located along the esophagus and trachea and between the lungs and the diaphragm. She writes computer programs that utilize image processing, machine learning and computer vision, and she analyzes data from MR, CT and PET scans. Her mentors are Dr. Jianmin Liu, a staff scientist in the Imaging Biomarkers and Computer-Aided Diagnosis Laboratory of NIH’s Clinical Center, and Dr. Ronald Summers, the lab’s principal investigator.

“We write programs that map out the human body and basically identify different pathologies or anatomical structures that might be hard for a radiologist to find,” says Hoffman.

“After being here for about six months, I really enjoy the research.”

The goals of computer-aided disease detection, according to NIH, are to save doctors time, give them more confidence in what they are seeing inside patients, and potentially improve patient health.

Hoffman was attracted to Lehigh because of its emphasis on incorporating arts and sciences. As a student in Lehigh’s arts and engineering program, a five-year, dual-degree endeavor, Hoffman earned a B.A. in 2012 in anthropology. She also completed a minor in classics through Lehigh’s Classical Studies Program. She acquired the ability to read and write ancient Greek, and she is also proficient in Spanish.

A world of opportunity

Hoffman spent the 2010-11 academic year at the University of Nottingham in England through a Lehigh study abroad exchange program for junior chemical engineering majors. The following year, she was a youth delegate to the United Nations for the World Corrosion Organization, a nongovernmental organization.

“Lehigh is a unique school in that students can cross different lines, such as arts and sciences, without any trouble,” says Hoffman. “And Lehigh promotes interdisciplinary practices. You can do research as a freshman, as a sophomore. You can take any imaginable combination of classes.”

Mayuresh V. Kothare, the R.L. McCann Professor of Chemical Engineering and the teacher of the process control class that Hoffman took, recalls Hoffman’s interest in doing biomedical research. Kothare told Hoffman about his sabbatical at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he worked on brain-computer interface technology to help patients regain control of functions they lose because of brain damage or disease.

“Joanne told me she was interested in medicine due to both her parents being medical doctors,” says Kothare, who also chairs the chemical engineering department. “But she was also greatly attached to engineering.

“She realized that she could develop both skills by potentially pursuing an MD/Ph.D. program. As a first step in that direction, she applied for the NIH IRTA post-baccalaureate fellowship program.”

Starting with a focus on phonemes

Hoffman decided to study anthropology at Lehigh because of her interest in world civilizations. One of her favorite courses was Intro to Linguistics, which teaches students about phonemes, or language sounds. The course is cross-listed in the department of modern languages and literatures, the department of sociology and anthropology, and the cognitive sciences program.

“Anthropology gave me a chance to learn more about other cultures be it through language (linguistics) or artifacts (archaeology),” says Hoffman. “I enjoy learning the nuances of other groups of individuals and their cultures. Also, I saw anthropology as a way to learn history.”

“Joanne was an exceptional student,” recalls David B. Small, professor of sociology and anthropology. “She had brains, a strong work ethic and passion.

“She also worked as an AT (assistant teacher) for me in my Doing Archaeology class. She was always ahead of me in predicting what the class would need! She also received an undergraduate scholarship to work on use wear analysis of stone tools for me. Her work was exceptional. Plus, she was a wonderful person, who befriended and respected all of her students.”

When she’s not in the lab, Hoffman enjoys sports—both playing and watching golf. Basketball is a favorite; as a native of South Florida, she roots particularly for the Miami Heat. But March is her preferred sports month, when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament kicks into high gear.

“I totally freaked out when Lehigh beat Duke,” she says, referring to the Mountain Hawks’ historic, early-round upset of the Blue Devils in 2012.

While she was still at Lehigh, Hoffman recalls, Kothare once asked her if she would change anything about her undergraduate experience.

“I reflected on my time at Lehigh and decided there would be not one thing I would change,” she says. “That’s  because I ended up multiple times, be it here at the NIH or being able to go to the UN or to England, in vastly interesting and fascinating places in my life.

“I look forward to what I will be doing in the future no matter where my life takes me.”

Story by Anthony Salamone

Posted on Friday, January 31, 2014

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