Bioengineering Ph.D. candidate Elena Maria Zannoni earns top prize at the PIDSC Young Investigator Awards


Huan Song

Elena Maria Zannoni Bioengineering
Bioengineering Ph.D. candidate Elena Maria Zannoni 

Bioengineering Ph.D. candidate Elena Maria Zannoni was chosen as the first-place winner of the Physics, Instrumentation and Data Sciences Council (PIDSC) Young Investigator Award at the 2021 Society of Nuclear Medicine & Molecular Imaging (SNMMI) Annual Meeting. This award identifies promising young investigators working on nuclear instrumentation and data analysis in nuclear medicine. Zannoni was recognized for her work "Design study of a high-resolution and ultrahigh-sensitivity brain SPECT system for imaging medically intractable epilepsy ", published in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine.

In this work, the research team aims to develop an ultrahigh-performance brain-dedicated SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) system, the HelmetSPECT system, based on advanced semiconductor gamma-ray imaging sensors and a novel artificial compound-eye gamma camera.

"My experience at UIUC has been extraordinarily productive and rewarding," said Zannoni. "I had all the resources that I needed to successfully carry out my research, and the awards I won during these years are proof. I am very glad that my Ph.D. work has been recognized in so many conferences, and this gives me the energy to tackle new challenges and to approach problems from new perspectives."

Zannoni graduated with cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Pisa in Italy. She later enrolled in a master of science program there and came to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as a part of an exchange program between The Grainger College of Engineering and the University of Pisa. At Illinois, Zannoni joined professor Ling-Jian Meng's group as a Visiting Scholar to work on a state-of-the-art preclinical MRI compatible SPECT system called MRC-SPECT-I system developed in the Meng's Radiation Detection and Imaging Lab.

Meng is a professor at the department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering and a Bioengineering graduate faculty. His lab focuses on developing medical imaging instrumentation for applications in radiological science and nuclear medicine, specifically Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT), Positron Emission Tomography (PET), and functional X-ray Computed Tomography (CT). These imaging techniques utilize a broad range of ionizing radiation (from soft x-rays to energetic gamma rays and alpha particles) to visualize molecular and physiological processes inside living animals and patients, for diagnostic and therapeutic applications. These cutting-edge imaging technologies developed by the Meng group enable researchers to tackle some of the most challenging diseases such as brain cancer, cardiac diseases, and neurodegenerative disorders.

Zannoni returned to Illinois in 2016 as a Ph.D. candidate in the Bioengineering department advised by Meng. Since then, she has been leading a major project funded by an NIH R01 grant to develop the second generation of a preclinical MR-compatible SPECT system, the MRC-SPECT-II system. During her doctoral studies, she designed, assembled, tested, and characterized this imaging system. She presented her research at the last four editions of the IEEE Nuclear Science Symposium and Medical Imaging Conference (NSS-MIC) and earned the first and third places at the IEEE NPSS Christopher J. Thompson Student Paper Award competition.

Since a young age, Zannoni has always been fascinated by radiation and nuclear physics. "I am passionately interested in my research field, and I strongly believe in the potentials of imaging systems based on high-energy radiation detectors," said Zannoni. "I am convinced that the development of more efficient and optimized detection hardware will have transformative impacts for diagnosis and treatment of diseases in clinical practice." Zannoni is slated to graduate in August 2021.