Chemical engineering major Holly Sewell is working on the detection of lung cancer biomarkers using DNA microarrays through the Discovery Learning Apprenticeship Program. In Professor Christopher Bowman’s lab, working with graduate student Ryan Hansen, she is trying 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 is 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. Eventually 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.
In addition to her on-campus research, Holly has worked at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the past two summers, analyzing LiDAR data and using it to develop an ecosystem model so that certain fish populations can be predicted. Light Detection and Ranging equipment was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Defense to locate objects in the water. She says, “LiDAR is now being used for many purposes including detecting particles in the atmosphere and fish in the water by flying the equipment on an airplane." Her research at NOAA involves looking at the data and identifying fish, plankton layers, and birds. "Combining this data with the flight path of the plane determines the density of fish in a certain area, thus identifying their ecosystem."
Holly is interested in earning the Active Learning Award. "The Discovery Learning Apprenticeship Program has helped me realize more of what I would like to do in my career." The experience has also helped her 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. The scholarship is worth $16,000 and is only awarded to 100 college sophomores per year. The scholarship included a paid summer internship which Holly will use to fulfill the professional experience for the Active Learning Award.
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