|Senior Receives Fellowship in Australia to Study Nano-Drugs for Earlier Detection of Cancer
March 17, 2011
|Katie Richeson and partner work at a biology lab.
by Kelly Beggs
Katie Richeson '11 has received a big fellowship to study life on a very small scale. She won a USA - Australia Fellowship to finance a year of post-baccalaureate research at the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.
Richeson and five other U.S. citizens received the $25,000 awards for masters, doctoral, and post-doctoral levels of study. Richeson was the youngest person to apply and the first Davidson student ever to win the fellowship. "It was really unexpected," she said, "but I'm looking forward to it!"
Australia is an ideal match for Richeson's research interests because of the country's strong nano-pharmaceutical industry. She had applied to and been accepted to work at labs throughout the world before she even knew that the USA-Australia Fellowship existed. She discovered it eventually through a fortuitous Google search. She said, "Australia is quite uniquely advanced -- they have myriad nano drugs on the market right now."
Nano-pharmaceutical drugs improve drug delivery by using a specialized capsule that's attracted to proteins that are outside of a targeted cell. Richeson will be studying how to locate these targeted cells on a small scale using nanostructured biosensors.
She explained, "There are basically machines in our body that detect changes -- genetic changes, protein changes, metabolic changes. If I have cancer you're going to see it as a tumor, and that's a biosensor of the disease. But there are also sensors at a much smaller scale, such as changes in gene expression. If you can detect these disease sensors on the nano scale, you might be able to administer treatment a lot earlier."
Richeson's Australian research lab focuses on nanostructured biosensors for breast cancer. Though her work there will reward her with experience rather than a degree, she ultimately intends to get a Ph.D. in molecular biology with a biomedical focus.
Richeson originally intended to be a pre-med student at Davidson, but she took a calculus and modeling class with Associate Professor of Mathematics Laurie Heyer that sparked an interest in research. "I liked the way it made me think," she said. "It was basically using calculus to model life sciences, and I fell in love with that. I realized that I really like research and answering the big questions. But I still believe in the practicality of scientific research."
Based on her interests, Richeson became a Center for Interdisciplinary Studies major in computational biology, studying the subject with mentors Heyer and Professor of Biology Malcolm Campbell. Heyer said, "As a first-year student, her drive and determination and independence were already clear. With Katie, it's really been us following her. She wanted to do a very particular kind of research."
"Her project was very ambitious," Campbell added. "She got the fellowship in part because she's chosen an area that's very computationally challenging before you even get into the wet lab."
In her thesis research, Richeson uses "DNA origami," the nanoscale folding of DNA, to model a solution to an otherwise unsolvable mathematical problem.
"I've just taken the inherent Watson Crick binding of DNA and manipulated it to form a structure that is quite practical in mathematical problems," she said. "There are math problems that ask questions about whether or not certain tiles can assemble in a specific way, and I've modeled that using the DNA nanostructures."
To create a nanostructure, Richeson takes a single strand of DNA that has been sequenced in a particular order. She places it in a thermocycler, which is programmed to go to certain temperatures, and adds complementary strands. As DNA is usually double-stranded, the single strands combine based on the temperature gradients and step-downs of the thermocycler. "The strands assemble based on the Watson-Crick binding to form these cruciforms like structures," she said. The process and result model the complementary bounded tiling problem.
She's the first Davidson student to study DNA origami, but a strong work ethic and close guidance from her two advisors have helped her to find her way.
Richeson said, "I've failed a lot, but failure in science is part of the process. My advisors have been unbelievably supportive with my frustrations, and I really consider them to be my friends now."
She's hoping she'll find a similar sense of community in Australia, and so far her communication has hinted that there may be a little bit of Davidson in Brisbane. "The people who work in my lab have already invited me to their homes for dinner," she said.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.