MU students selected to present research in nation’s capitol
Christine O’Brien’s research has a wow factor.
“We detect cancer with lasers,” she said. “How cool is that?”
Cool enough that she was selected to present her work as part of “Posters on the Hill” in Washington, D.C. O’Brien, a senior biological engineering major, and Kyle Ervin, a civil engineering major, were the only two students from Missouri chosen to attend the event.
The Council of Undergraduate Research selected 60 students across the nation to present projects to legislators on Capitol Hill in order to raise awareness and funding for undergraduate research.
O’Brien said research projects give students a head start on their peers.
“In class you’re given theoretical knowledge, how it should work,” she said. “In a lab things don’t always work the way they’re supposed to. The lab pulls everything together: math, chemistry, everything.”
Melanoma on the Move
O’Brien and a team of graduates and undergraduates in Dr. John Viator’s lab work to detect circulating melanoma cells in the bloodstream.
“Currently, the only way to test if melanoma has spread through the blood stream is to wait six months and see if there’s a tumor,” O’Brien said. The project aims to locate metastasized cancer much earlier.
The team separates a patient’s blood using a centrifuge. Melanoma cells settle in the white blood cell layer. The white blood cell sample is hit with a laser, and the melanoma cells create a pressure wave due to their pigmentation. A piezoelectric transducer, a device that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy, detects the expansion. A voltage spike indicates a cancer cell has been detected.
O’Brien’s job is to isolate the cells on the move. Since the solution flows at a constant rate, she can predict where the cell will be at a certain time and extract it through a series of dilutions.
“If we can figure out what makes melanoma move, we can treat it,” she said.
O’Brien’s research career began freshman year when she took one of Viator’s classes. Since then, she has presented her work at MU Life Sciences Week, the Missouri Nano Frontiers Challenge and at the SPIE Photonics West conference in San Francisco. She also participated in an event in Jefferson City similar to Posters on the Hill.
She said one of her favorite parts of her job is training new people. She is currently training someone to replace her when she graduates in December. Though, she said, if a post-grad co-op doesn’t work out, she wouldn’t mind sticking around.
“It’s really cool to work on a project that affects people,” she said. “In a lab project it’s like, how did the temperature change, but mine can actually help people and make a difference.”
Ready to Rumble
Ervin’s research on highway rumble strips doesn’t involve lasers, but it could give a drowsy driver quite a jolt.
He worked with Dr. Carlos Sun on a project studying the effects of rumble strips on driver behavior.
“We try to increase driver awareness to upcoming work zones,” Ervin said. He used video footage and a radar gun to evaluate driver behavior in areas with and without rumble strips to determine if the strips provide a beneficial warning about upcoming reduced speed zones. His research focused on zones where two-lane traffic tapers to one lane.
“Right before the change in lanes, it alerts drivers that they’re going to have to make a change in the way they’re driving,” Ervin said. “It should make it safer for workers and for drivers. It’s a double benefit.”
Ervin found that drivers’ average speed did decrease, by approximately three miles per hour, when a rumble strip was present. Drivers’ use of brakes also increased by more than 10 percent thanks to the rumble strip.
Ervin also presented his research at the Jefferson City event.
“A lot of transportation projects are funded through the government,” Ervin said. “It’s good for legislators to see that people are looking into the safety of work zones.”