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May 20, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Knowing that someone somewhere is battling skin cancer right now motivates MU senior Christine O’Brien every day that she goes into the lab. When the research gets tough, O’Brien knows the sooner she can perfect her cancer-finding technology, the sooner she can help.
Every year in the U.S., 68,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. Since last September, the biological engineering major has been working in the lab with John Viator, assistant professor of biological engineering at MU, on technology that uses a laser to “excite” cells in a blood sample. Those cells allow researchers to see if melanoma is in the bloodstream before it can form other tumors and spread.
Although the technology was already established when she took on the project, O’Brien has developed the process by which the lasers isolate the cells so they can be removed from the bloodstream. She says the technology could change cancer detection nationwide.
“Ideally it’d be in every oncology department in the country,” O’Brien says. The lasers can also be used to detect malaria, prostate cancer and breast cancer cells through their pigments.
O’Brien became involved in the project after hearing Viator speak in an introductory class. “I essentially stalked him one day after class and asked him for a job,” she says.
Both of O’Brien’s parents are professors, so scientific research has always been on her radar. “Even when I was little, I was very inquisitive,” she says. “I used to get in trouble for asking so many questions.”
Her parents pushed her, and their expectations were key. “If you have a lot of potential, people sort of expect more from you, which I think is fine,” O’Brien says. Desire to get into a competitive graduate school also drives her. A St. Louis native, O’Brien attended the University of Illinois but then transferred to MU. She says she had a great experience at Illinois but didn’t get a lot of time in the lab because of the school’s competitiveness.
O’Brien spends the majority of her time outside of school doing research, but she considers her co-workers her friends. “It’s kind of like I go hang out with my friends for the afternoon and run crazy science experiments,” O’Brien says. “It’s just fun.”
She has fun outside of work, too. Although she spends anywhere between 10 to 20 hours in the lab per week, she finds time for socializing, even if it’s at the library. “Most of my friends are engineers just because that’s who I’ve met in college,” she says. “They’re all busy at the library, so it’s not like I’m missing out on anything because they’re busy, too.”
In the lab, O’Brien leads the research and works with a team of other undergraduate students. Junior Kyle Rood joined the lab in January and plans to take over the project when O’Brien graduates in December. “She’s been very patient with me and taught me everything that we’ve been doing and all the lab techniques,” Rood says.
Undergraduate Jeff Mosley works on the project’s software. He says O’Brien’s communication skills keep everyone on track. “She’s always on top of the ball; she knows what direction to keep the project going,” he says.
O’Brien says, “If you’re given a big opportunity, you have a bigger chance to make something of it.” When she’s almost too tired to run yet another test, she tells herself, “You’re not just doing it to do it — you are doing it to help people.”