Student overcomes challenges of independence to achieve his PhD dream

Siyuan Lu praised the support of his PhD supervisor, Professor Yudong Zhang.

A University of Leicester student with severe cerebral palsy is set to complete his PhD two years early, despite several setbacks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Siyuan Lu, who was born in China, uses a motorised wheelchair and needs assistance with eating and drinking, and had never lived alone before moving to Leicester to start his PhD in 2019.

Before moving to Leicester, Siyuan was reliant on his mother to drive him to and from lectures in his homeland.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown meant that for the first time in Siyuan’s life, he was forced to live independently whilst also researching for his PhD in computer science. 

He said: “The biggest change is accessibility. It’s very convenient for me to move around in my wheelchair but in China, I need my parents to deliver me to school or university and take me back when class is over every day.

“My mother had to quit her job when I was about 10 years old so for about 20 years she has always taken care of me.”

The 31-year-old student lives in a studio apartment near to the University’s main campus.

During the height of the pandemic, Siyuan would only leave the house once a fortnight for groceries. 

Despite struggling to prepare and eat food independently, Siyuan was forced to adapt and survive on microwave meals which he could eat with his hands, such as pizza. 

Siyuan said: “I wasn’t lonely because I could chat with my parents on the internet.

“I would use the microwave oven and I would eat pizzas and instant noodles. It is very different from what I usually eat and it was pretty boring.”

Siyuan, who was born in 1991, was only diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was two years old, due to an early misdiagnosis. 

His PhD focusses on machine learning and computer-aided diagnosis. He hopes that his research will help other patients avoid misdiagnosis in the future. 

He has been supported by his PhD supervisor, Professor Yudong Zhang who encouraged Siyuan to make the trip from China to the UK to continue his studies. 

Siyuan said: “Professor Zhang advised me and encouraged me to study abroad to broaden my view and to get better studies and research in the UK. It was a good chance for me so I prepared the materials and came here.”

Siyuan and Yudong are two of the developers behind an AI tool that can detect Covid-19 by analysing chest X-rays with 97.86% accuracy. It is currently the most successful Covid-19 diagnosis tool in the world. 

Before Siyuan joined the University, his department’s building, the Informatics Building on campus was not equipped with automatic doors. This is something that was changed immediately when Siyuan started working on campus. 

Professor Zhang also made sure that whilst Siyuan was working as a research and teaching assistant at the University, he was able to work remotely as often as possible taking the pressure off Siyuan to make the journey to campus each day. 

Professor Zhang said: “As his supervisor, Siyuan is very inspirational. He had excellent research outputs and so will hopefully finish his PhD in two years whereas most PhD students need three or four years to finish. I hope that his story helps other people.”

Siyuan hopes to return to China after completing his viva voce in August.