Discovery Learning Profile

Holly Sewell

Department: Chemical Engineering

Discovery Learning Apprenticeship

"The Discovery Learning apprenticeship is a good way to get involved in a lab setting."

Chemical engineering major Holly Sewell worked on the detection of lung cancer biomarkers using DNA microarrays. In Professor Christopher Bowman’s lab, she tried to find the best way to detect genetic mutations found in lung cancer patients in order to diagnose their cancer earlier.

“Lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer because it is really hard to detect. Most people do not realize anything is wrong until the cancer has spread to other organs. This leads to only a 15 percent, five-year survival rate,” says Holly. The project’s focus was on genetic mutation, found in most lung cancers, that could have derived from environmental factors and is also found to be hereditary. Current methods of lung cancer detection such as chest radiography and sputum cytology are expensive and have not improved patient survival rates because they do not detect the cancer soon enough. She says, “If the genetic mutation can be detected, then you can get an earlier diagnosis to prevent the disease from spreading.” Currently the most popular forms of treatments are chemotherapy or lung transplants. A molecular diagnosis will provide an earlier, cheaper detection method allowing for treatment prior to the systemic spread of the cancer.

While in the lab, using a DNA microarray that she printed on a glass slide, she examined two DNA sequences. The first sequence was a "wild type" that codes for the normal K-RAS protein; and the second mutant sequence codes for a malfunctioning K-RAS protein. The K-RAS protein controls cell growth, death and proliferation, and the mutations that cause lung cancer as well as other forms of cancers are found in the "RAS" gene. “The discovery learning apprenticeship is a good way to get involved in a lab setting and has helped involve me in other opportunities," she says.

"The Discovery Learning Apprenticeship Program helped me realize more of what I would like to do in my career." The experience also helped Holly gain knowledge as well as two scholarships: one from the Society of Women Engineers and the other from NOAA. Holly received the Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship from NOAA.