While faculty steer the ship, graduate students are the engines that drive university research. They are the ones who take ownership of individual projects from inception to completion while professors and other senior lab members juggle multiple projects and grants. They begin with a challenge – a question to answer, a device to make – and they are expected to deliver.
For Rhonda Jack, a graduate student in chemical engineering, that device was intended to help doctors diagnose cancers more precisely and treat them more effectively. She saw it through the challenges of design, and in effort to publish the work, delivered proof after proof of its promise for understanding individual cases of cancer.
“The idea was a system that could process a large volume of blood in a single device and capture these rare cancer cells,” said Jack.
So-called circulating tumor cells are released from tumors and are believed to enable cancers to spread to other areas of the body. But if they can be captured from the bloodstream and studied, they can reveal how aggressive a cancer is and what drugs might be most effective against it.