Student/Alumnus Spotlight: Chris Lam Brings Engineering Expertise to Global Health

October 17, 2017

Chris Lam, a biomedical engineering PhD student and DGHI doctoral scholar from Cincinnati, Ohio, has a passion for engineering medical devices to influence global health outcomes. His work over the course of several years spent at the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) has contributed to the development of a device that may change the way cervical cancer is diagnosed around the world.

The MSc-GH Provided Valuable Training and Mentoring

Lam entered the doctoral program after completing his Master of Science in Global Health with DGHI in 2012. As a visiting scholar at The George Institute for Global Health, his master’s research measured the effectiveness of a low-sodium dietary salt substitute in reducing hypertension in Tibetan elderly. The results of the study suggest that the salt substitute could be part of a cost-effective regimen to reduce hypertension.

Global health professors Svati Shah and Lijing Yan provided tremendous mentorship and support to Lam during his three-month long fieldwork experience in China. “The rigorous epidemiology and statistical training I received during my master’s training has been really useful for my dissertation data analysis,” Lam said. “I’ve even been able to share that training with other students in my lab.”

Lam Drawn to Intersection of Engineering and Global Health

Lam was initially drawn to the field by a friend’s passion for global health, which piqued his interest in exploring how engineering could integrate with global health to improve health outcomes for people all over the world. A master’s class, Global Health Challenges, taught by professor Chris Woods, opened Lam’s eyes to the breadth of the field. “It got me thinking about how engineering could be applied to develop solutions for these issues,” he shared.

Additionally, Lam has been a teaching assistant for five semesters of professor of the practice Robert Malkin’s Design for the Developing World class. In this position, he mentors students as they design medical devices for use in low-resource settings.

Lam Working on Groundbreaking Cervical Cancer Screening Device

Currently, Lam is pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering, working in the lab of biomedical engineering and global health professor Nimmi Ramanujam, where he conducts dissertation research for the design, development and enhancement of the Pocket Colposcope. Lam’s research has been primarily focused in Durham, Haiti, Peru, Kenya and Tanzania.

The Pocket Colposcope is a handheld device for cervical cancer screening that promises to do away with uncomfortable speculums and high-cost colposcopes. The device itself is a slender, tampon-like wand that can connect to many devices, including laptops or cell phones, and holds the potential to change the way cervical cancer screening is conducted.


Chris Lam (second from left, back row) with the medical staff at Family Health Ministries
at the Blanchard Clinic in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, one of his clinical collaborator sites.

“I’m really interested in developing low-cost, optics-based technologies for the detection and diagnosis of cancer,” said Lam. “I wasn’t sure I would be able to find a PhD project and lab that would let me meld my mutual interests in global health and biomedical engineering like [Ramanujam’s] has.”

He added, “I’ve been really fortunate to have an amazing environment of post-doctoral students, fellow graduate students, undergraduate students and staff members working on the cervical cancer screening project.”

Lam Recalls Favorite DGHI Course

Lam appreciates the broad range of courses he’s taken through DGHI and how they have impacted him as a researcher. One of his favorites was “Introduction to mHealth,” taught by DGHI research scholar Lavanya Vasudevan.

“It related well with my research,” said Lam. “The class was really useful as we were trying to develop a smartphone and tablet app to interface with the Pocket Colposcope.”

Lam Still Has Close Ties with DGHI

Last year, Lam was selected as a DGHI doctoral scholar, a program geared toward PhD candidates with a substantive interest in global health. Doctoral scholars receive funding from DGHI and mentorship from global health faculty members, develop a global health-related dissertation and become involved in DGHI's intellectual community.

The long-term connections Lam has formed at DGHI have proven invaluable to him. “DGHI has provided me with a support network of like-minded graduate and professional students.  They’ve created a very collaborative and interdisciplinary atmosphere that has really helped my research project move forward.”

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Chris Lam talks with prospective graduate students about the Pocket Colposcope at the biomedical engineering Graduate School Boot Camp.

“The rigorous epidemiology and statistical training I received during my master’s training has been really useful for my dissertation data analysis

Chris Lam, biomedical engineering PhD student and DGHI doctoral scholar

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