Chance » Reflections » Chen

A Personal Reflection on my Ph.D. Advisor Dr. Britton Chance

Yu Chen / Fischell Department of Bioengineering, University of Maryland

07 May 2011

The first time I heard BC’s name was 1996. When I asked Professor Linda Powers, who was visiting Peking University in China, on her advice for my future Ph.D. directions, she said: “you should pursue some frontier research”. To her, “frontier” means Britton Chance.

I could not agree more with her. The six years I spent with Brit at Penn has been an unforgettable life adventure. Brit is, in many aspects, a true legend. It was under his guidance that I grow both intellectually and personally. I was educated in many fields including life science, physical science, and engineering, and obtained a wider perspective in scientific research. Brit’s abundant knowledge exhilarated every discussion projecting new ideas and keeping the research in progress.

BC at Yu Chen's graduation from Penn (May 2003)

BC is a wonderful mentor. Whenever help is needed, he is always accessible. I still remember he sat side by side with me in front of an old-fashioned oscilloscope until 9 p.m. to solve a circuit problem. And he was always glad to discuss questions or problems with students and provided really good ideas, suggestions, and directions. His teaching is solid and comprehensive, and he always tried his best to provide the needed resource for his students. Immediately after I received the admission to Penn Bioengineering program in 1997, he wrote me a letter. He suggested me to ask Professor Qingming Luo (who just finished his postdoc with BC and returned to China) for some books and papers that I should read to prepare my doctoral study. It turned out the books suggested by Professor Luo on optoelectronics helped a lot during my initial transition to BC’s lab. During my Ph.D. proposal research on phased-array optical imaging, BC paid my trip to Baltimore to learn how to use software to simulate phased-array photon migration from Professor Kyung Kang. Of course, he always encouraged me to take the physics courses and seminars taught by Professor Arjun Yodh to learn more about photon migration theory. In BC’s group meeting on every Saturday, he invited his friend Ken Simons (retired from RCA lab) to teach us circuits and electronics. It was BC who created a rare environment where research can be actively discussed; knowledge can be freely shared; and new ideas can be constantly ignited.

Working with BC opened the biomedical applications of light, including cancer detection and brain imaging, to me. I was fortunate to work on many collaborative projects with researchers from different disciplines, which brought in new ideas and tools. During our discussion with BC, the most frequent words I heard from him is “Why not?” To him, there seems no bounds in exploring the excitement of research. Under his influence, I enjoyed more and more in research as well, and gradually set my future career path to academia. The primary focus of my thesis work was to develop a sensitive fluorescence imaging system for fast and accurate detection and localization of molecular-specific contrast agents. Those contrast agents have different uptakes in tumor and normal tissues due to the biological changes caused by the tumor growth, especially in the cellular and molecular level, thereby providing enhanced contrasts to detect tumors. Under the guidance of BC, I developed the frequency-domain fluorescence imaging system [1], and demonstrated tumor detection using the glucose transporter specific contrast agents on animal models in vivo [2,3]. Without BC’s advising and help, I could not accomplish my thesis so smoothly and successfully.

After graduation I moved to MIT for my postdoc. I still kept frequent interaction with BC. Often he invited me back to Penn for seminars and exchanging research ideas. One time, after his discussion with Greg Weinstein at Penn, he had an idea of using optical coherence tomography, a technology I was working on during my postdoc, to image vocal cord cancer. He then called me up and invited me to Penn to discuss a potential project with Greg and other colleagues. His passion on research always propelled new ideas into fruitful action.

Since I started my independent research lab at the University of Maryland in 2007, I still turned to BC for suggestions and advice frequently. And he always replied to my questions immediately, no matter how simple or complicated it was. His suggestions were very critical in shaping my research ideas and directions, especially at the beginning of my academic career. The last time I saw BC was November 2008, in Wuhan, China. We discussed a lot on research and he even shared with me his grant proposal on metabolometer, and discussed the potential collaboration with me on developing an endoscopic version of his metabolometer. He also carefully read my research proposals and brought up many insightful questions and suggestions. In October 2010, after exchanging several emails with him on research questions, I asked him about his travel plans. He replied briefly: “Dear Yu, I come to NCKU Tainan Nov 17, BC.”

But on the morning of Nov. 16, we heard the news that BC has left us. To most of us, we felt as if he has come to a place much much farther than Tainan, a place where he can continue pursuing his beloved research, innovation, and discovery. His legend, spirit, and teaching will stay with us, and will be passed down to our future generations to motivate us to make the world better.

– Yu Chen


  1. Y. Chen, C.P. Mu, X. Intes, D. Blessington, and B. Chance, "Near-infrared phase cancellation instrument for fast and accurate localization of fluorescent heterogeneity," Review of Scientific Instruments 74, 3466-3473 (2003).
  2. Y. Chen, G. Zheng, Z.H. Zhang, D. Blessington, M. Zhang, H. Li, Q. Liu, L. Zhou, X. Intes, S. Achilefu, and B. Chance, "Metabolism-enhanced tumor localization by fluorescence imaging: in vivo animal studies," Optics Letters 28, 2070-2072 (2003).
  3. Y. Chen, X. Intes, and B. Chance, "Development of high sensitivity near-infrared (NIR) fluorescence imaging device for early cancer detection," Biomedical Instrumentation and Technology 39, 75-85 (2005).