Ability to Harness Physics and Biology Takes Duquesne Student to Elite NIH Program

March 23, 2016

A Duquesne University biomedical engineering student has become one of only a dozen undergraduates nationwide to be selected to conduct government-funded research at the world's most comprehensive spinal cord injury research center.

Cecelia Lee-Hauser of Elizabeth, a sophomore in Duquesne's biomedical engineering (BME) program, will spend her summer as a fellow in a National Institutes of Health program at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

The program, designed to expand and diversify next-generation neurotrauma scientists, focuses on cutting-edge projects that could significantly impact the field and U.S. health care. Students were selected into this program based on previous laboratory experience.

"I believe because of the project I did, I got this opportunity," Lee-Hauser said.

Her project laid groundwork for identifying bacterial infections within 30 minutes, avoiding the need to culture the sample and wait up to three days for results.

Working with Dr. John Viator, director of the biomedical engineering program, and Dr. Benjamin S. Goldschmidt, research assistant professor, she developed a method for identifying E.coli through photoacoustics, using soundwaves that generate a specific pattern, based upon color.

She tagged a T-7 bacteriophage, a virus that specifically invades E.coli, with two dyes, Coomassie Blue and Direct Red. A laser hitting the sample heats it to the point of giving off vibrations. If the vibrations are the same wavelength as those from the blue and red dyes, Lee-Hauser knows the selective phage has, indeed, found E.coli within the sample.

"This concept is something new with bacteriophages and would be working with patients, saving lives," Lee-Hauser explained. "We're hoping to expand this process to other bacteria. It's strange to think about light having movement, in a way, because you can't see light moving. But this gives you proof-and you can see how light impacts everyday life.

"It's a very interesting bridge between biology and physics, engineering and medicine. I just really like bringing together these two worlds that usually don't like to collide," added Lee-Hauser, who was also offered a Summer Scholar position with the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, another elite program with an acceptance rate of only 4 percent.

"Cecelia has worked hard in the classroom and in the lab, gaining valuable experience that is making her a top notch biomedical engineer," said Viator, a proponent of hands-on learning. "Others are recognizing that, as shown by her acceptances to these highly ranked, competitive research fellowships."

Duquesne University
Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 10,000 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability.