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Paying it Forward the Petit Scholar Way

It’s a widespread practice among Chinese students to assume an English name as they start learning the language. When it was Yichen Wang’s turn to pick a new alter ego, he chose what he considered the road less traveled by, a route that has served him well in his education.

“I wanted an uncommon name, so I opened up the dictionary of names and pointed and, oops, that’s how I got my name,” says Wang, a 2015 Petit Undergraduate Research Scholar who answers to Payne, and never wanted to follow in anyone else’s footsteps. “Most of my classmates in China liked following a set path, but my style always has been to do what I like, to do what interests me.”

It turns out a lot interests him, and that’s what attracted him to the Georgia Institute of Technology, “the free space to explore whatever you want,” ways Wang, who is pursuing a dual major – biomedical engineering and electrical engineering, with a minor in biochemistry. It’s a work load, “which sounds totally insane,” according to Wang’s lab mentor (and now his Petit Scholar mentor), Robert Mannino.

“I had enough of a challenge just maintaining my biomedical engineering grades,” adds Mannino, a former Petit Scholar. “Payne is managing all of this and I don’t even notice it when he’s in the lab, because he’s 100 percent in the lab.”

That would be the lab of Wilbur Lam, where Wang, the undergrad from Beijing, and Mannino, who grew up in Atlanta, work as part of an interdisciplinary team intent on developing and applying micro/nanotechnologies to study, diagnose, and treat blood disorders, cancer, and childhood diseases.

Close to Home

When he was six months old, Mannino was diagnosed with beta thalassemia major, a rare blood disorder that reduces the production of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that delivers oxygen to cells throughout the body. One of his little brothers also has the disease. He comes by his interest in medical research honestly.

“I’d been in and out of hospitals every three weeks getting blood transfusions since I was a baby and that exposure to the medical field influenced my college choice,” says Mannino, who was drawn to the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, a joint program of Emory and Georgia Tech, and Wilbur Lam, who had come from the University of California-San Francisco to start a lab.

Lam, a biomedical engineer and pediatric hematologist, and a member of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, employs a "basement to bench to bedside" approach to biomedical research, enabled by dual locations at Emory and Tech, and affiliations with the hospitals of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where Mannino spent so much of his time growing up.

“I’ve been going to Children’s my whole life, and I’ve lived close to one of the best biomedical research institutions in the country, Georgia Tech, my whole life,” says Mannino. At some point, a biomedical degree just seemed inevitable. He graduated from the Coulter Department in 2013 and is now in his second year of graduate studies. For the past several years he’s worked with Lam, who has described Mannino as, “a star,” for the student’s determination in developing new technologies to help others with his disease.

Undergrad in the Lab

Mannino already was a key player in the Lam lab when Payne Wang started looking for research positions a few semesters ago.

“Wilbur includes the group on any decision that involves adding people,” Mannino recalls. “Payne’s skills and work ethic just jumped off his resume.”

Wang had research experience from high school, and there was the double major and the high grade point average. Plus, the timing was perfect. Mannino’s project, a device he’s calling a “do-it-yourself in vitro vasculature model,” was at a good stage for another pair of eyes.

From his vantage point, Lam has seen Mannino make the transition from a wide-eyed undergrad in a research lab to more of a teacher’s role as Wang’s mentor.

“I fill in the gaps and the empty spaces,” says Wang, underplaying his role.

“Payne did more than you would typically expect from an undergraduate in the lab, even to the point that he was coming up with his own research ideas to help my project,” says Mannino who (along with another former Petit Scholar in the Lam lab, Meredith Fay) encouraged Wang to apply for the program.

Mannino has been a Petit Scholar, so he can sell the experience convincingly. “It was instrumental in preparing me for grad school. I was able to get in on two publications as an undergraduate, and the experience fostered my idea for the research I’m doing now, which I expect to publish soon.”

He wanted that kind of experience for his lab buddy, Payne Wang. But he also says there were ulterior motives. “We’d like to keep Payne around in our lab for a while,” Mannino says.

Lam, who has the benefit of the principal investigator’s perspective, would agree. He’s seen Mannino in action for the past few years, and he’s seeing the same kind of qualities in Wang. For example, both came to his lab with solid backgrounds in coding.

“When Rob joined, he was a good programmer. He learned a lot of biology and his project leverages both sets of skills. It’s been fabulous to watch him grow from a student to a teacher’s role, and see Payne go through some of the same things, coming into a research lab as wide-eyed undergrads,” says Lam. “Rob taught Payne a lot of the biology that he learned, and Payne is applying his own programming skills for Rob’s project, and now Payne has his own project as part of the Petit Scholarship. So it’s like things have come full circle. Payne is on the same trajectory that Rob was on – a talented undergrad researcher destined to go to grad school.”

For his part, Wang seems giddy over the scholarship, and pleased with the lab arrangement. “A full year of research! I’m really thrilled. This is a great opportunity for an undergraduate. This isn’t typical,” says Wang, who is using Mannino’s device to help answer his questions and further his own research.


Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience

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Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience