School of Engineering Senior Wins IEEE SoutheastCon 2016 Student Paper Competition


MACON – Mercer University School of Engineering student Erin Mullinax recently won first place in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) SoutheastCon 2016 student paper competition.

Mullinax, a senior electrical engineering major from Saratoga Springs, New York, began the research for her award-winning paper, titled “Using Digital Image Processing to Improve the Accuracy of Radiofrequency Ablation of Cancer Tumors in High-Risk Locations,” as a result of her own diagnosis with cancer.

She was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal stromal tumor in February 2014, which led her to begin investigating alternative cancer treatment options. While researching a paper topic for a course in radiofrequency circuit design taught by Dr. Jeng-Nan Juang, professor of electrical and computer engineering, Mullinax discovered radiofrequency ablation (RFA).

RFA is the surgical removal of dysfunctional body tissue using heat generated from high frequency alternating current. Mullinax further explored the procedure as a potential topic for her master's thesis and discovered that minimal attention had been paid to the imaging devices used in RFA.

Last January, she began work on her thesis, under the advisement of Dr. Juang and Dr. Kevin Barnett, associate professor and chair of electrical and computer engineering, to determine how improving image processing in RFA might improve the accuracy of the procedure.

As a participant in the Engineering Honors Program, Mullinax is required to present at a conference. Already planning to attend SoutheastCon 2016 in Norfolk, Virginia, as a member of Mercer's student hardware competition team, she drew upon a portion of the research she had done for her thesis to write and submit a paper to the conference.

With more than 430,000 members in more than 160 countries, IEEE is the world's largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity. IEEE publishes a third of the world's technical literature in electrical engineering, computer science and electronics, and is a leading developer of international standards for telecommunications, information technology and power generation products and services.

SoutheastCon brings together computer science and electrical and computer engineering professionals, faculty and staff in IEEE Region 3, which includes 10 U.S. states and Jamaica, to share the latest information through technical sessions, tutorials and exhibits.

Mullinax was notified in March that she had been selected as one of five finalists in the student paper competition. She presented to a panel of three judges at the conference on April 2 and was awarded the top prize, which included $800 and a plaque.

“We are very proud of Erin,” said Dr. Donald Ekong, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “This is the first time a student from Mercer has won this prestigious award.”

The winning paper discusses the use of two distinct image processing techniques in RFA to improve the visual acuity of images and facilitate greater accuracy in the ablation process. Both done in the spatial domain, histogram equalization changes the contrast of an image, while adaptive spatial filtering removes power additive noise from an image.

The techniques were compared and contrasted, and Mullinax concludes that adaptive spatial filtering is the better of the two. Her paper also calls for further research into the hundreds of image processing techniques that could result in more accurate ablation of tumors in high-risk locations.

“I was very surprised to hear my name called as the first-place winner,” she said. “I was excited and shocked to have won.”

Mullinax, who will graduate in May with her bachelor's and master's degrees, plans to continue this research in pursuit of a Ph.D.

The type of tissue cancer, or sarcoma, that she has is extremely rare, representing only .0025 percent of cancer diagnoses in the U.S. She currently has two metastasized tumors between the lower curvature of her stomach and the left lobe of her liver, and is taking medication designed to shrink the tumors. Traditional chemotherapy will not affect this type of cancer, which prompted her research into alternative therapies.

About the School of Engineering

Mercer University's School of Engineering, founded in 1985, offers innovative and academically challenging programs that provide students with a comprehensive education, featuring a solid foundation in mathematics and sciences, a core engineering curriculum, a range of courses in engineering specialties and a strong emphasis on communication technologies. The School is consistently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top three master's-degree-level engineering schools in the Southeast. Known for its breadth of instruction in its undergraduate program and its five-year joint bachelor's and master's degree program, the School combines technical education with hands-on laboratory experience. Mercer engineers can look forward to joining fellow alumni in companies such as Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, Lockheed Martin, Georgia Power, Siemens and Gulfstream Aerospace.

Kyle is senior director of media relations at Mercer. In addition to being the primary media contact for most academic and administrative units of the university, he serves as editor of the Mercerian alumni magazine and News@Mercer e-newsletters, and he coordinates hometown and university news releases.