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All Sewn Up

Dr. Hui Cong

By Cameron Walker

Dr. Hui Cong will soon return to her hometown in China — but she is leaving behind a body of work that will help make better, longer lasting surgical materials. She has focused her research here at the Wilson College of Textiles on barbed sutures — monofilaments that each look like the thorned stem of a rose — which eliminate the need for tying knots, thus reducing surgical time and promoting wound healing.

Her years of work on this subject have been truly hands-on. She shadowed plastic surgeon Dr. Gregory Ruff, whose barbed suture device was the first to gain Food and Drug Administration approval, standing beside him as he conducted several surgeries, including an 8-hour long full-body procedure from eyelid lift to tummy tuck. He taught her suturing, a skill she put to use while conducting animal studies for her research.

Cong won Best Oral Presentation Award for the Materials Innovation category at the Wilson College of Textiles Research Open House on April 16 for her presentation, “In vivo comparison of polydioxanone (PDO) and polyhydroxyalkanoate (P4HB) barbed sutures in a rat model.” She presented research comparing a material commonly used in absorbable sutures, PDO, to a novel substance, P4HB, that shows promise as a more durable surgical material.   

She graduated this May as valedictorian with a doctorate in Fiber and Polymer Science, and delivered a speech to the graduates and their families.

“My personal connection with the college was built up little by little, imperceptibly over time,” she said to the assembled crowd. “Each course I have taken, each faculty and staff member I have talked to, each student I have worked with and taught, they all contributed to my connection with the college.”

One of these faculty members was Dr. Jacqueline Cole, biomedical engineering professor and Cong’s co-advisor.    

“It has been a great pleasure to mentor Hui over the past several years,” said Cole. “I am proud that she was my first graduate student, and I am very excited to see her graduate. She has grown tremendously both professionally and personally, transforming from a hesitant, self-conscious student into an accomplished, articulate, and highly skilled scientist/engineer.”

What I work on, it can turn into a product which I can feel, I can see how it works. It’s like you have a dream and that dream can be reachable.

Dr. Martin King has served as Cong’s mentor throughout her years at the Wilson College of Textiles.

“She’s very concerned with detail,” he said. “She wants to make sure everything is very correct and in place and she doesn’t skim over anything. She has been a very successful student because she is able to understand and take care of the details, whether it’s preparing her barbed sutures — making sure they are the right size and dimensions — or whether she’s working with rats in her rat study.”

King described her as hardworking and responsible, illustrated by everyday tasks like navigating traffic.

“Last month we went to a conference in Atlanta (and) she drove the van,” he said. “She was the most responsible driver. She drove with great courtesy and care — and defensively.”

Cong also holds a master’s degree in Textile Engineering and a minor in Biomedical Engineering from NC State. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Donghua University in Shanghai, where she first heard of King and his Bio-Medical Textiles Research Group. She took his class during her first semester as a graduate student at the Wilson College of Textiles, and joined the group soon after.

“In Dr. King’s research group, we work a lot on the application side,” she said. “What I work on, it can turn into a product which I can feel, I can see how it works. It’s like you have a dream and that dream can be reachable.”

Cong played a central role in the research group, serving as a mentor to other students.

“She is very much a mother figure,” said King. “She has so much experience and is so calm and never gets flustered. People feel confident asking her how to do things and she will give them good advice. We will miss her.”

Cong grew up in Weihai, a Chicago-sized metropolis and major seaport on the eastern coast of China. When she was small, her late grandfather used to zip her around the city on his scooter.

“I wanted to be a taxi driver so I could drive all the time,” she laughed. She never pursued her childhood dream of driving taxis, instead following in her father’s footsteps. A textile engineer, he encouraged her to attend Donghua University, hundreds of miles from home. It was there, and on those long journeys from home to school and back again, that she fell in love with her future husband, P.C. Xing. They have been dating long-distance since then, but on his visit this Valentine’s Day, on the precipice of the Chinese New Year, he proposed in a quiet corner of the WRAL Azalea Gardens — a private moment that was also captured by the television station’s cameras.

With her doctorate in hand, Cong is moving home to Weihai. Her immediate plan is to secure a position with a medical device company there — but one day, she hopes to return to the Wilson College of Textiles. One of her dreams is to join the faculty here, who she said have encouraged her throughout her studies and pushed her to do better.

“Dr. King and my co-advisor in biomedical engineering, Dr. Cole…the achievements I have accomplished so far, they have helped a lot,” she said.

She noted King’s large-format focus on student development and Cole’s eagle eye for details, each equally important to the balancing act of conducting student research.

“One of the most special things about Hui is her kind and generous spirit,” said Cole. “She is always willing to offer a helping hand, constructive feedback, or an encouraging word to her fellow students…I have enjoyed working with Hui immensely during her graduate studies, and I look forward to seeing her make a positive impact in her career and other endeavors.”

On her last day on campus, she left the graduating students with her thoughts about success.

“Some people are born with extraordinary talents, but most of us are not,” she said. “Please remember that our personal effort, sweat and tears will lead us to success. The greater the effort we make, the more luck we will gain…You should compare your present situation with the past and compare yourself now with whom you used to be. Do not undermine your worth by comparing yourself with others…I wish you all will become the person you want to be.”