Fellowship allows BME grad students to find their passion

Posted on 25. Jul, 2014 by in Academic Departments, Alumni, Biomedical Engineering, Features, Gift Report, Healthcare and Medicine, Issues, People, Research, Students

Danielle Bourgeois

Danielle Bourgeois (Photo: Renee Meiller)

Danielle Bourgeois’ love of science is contagious. “If you can show people how much you love it and how excited you are,” she says. “It will inspire them to stay in science and engineering, and continue doing what they love as well.”

Bourgeois’ inspiration comes from studying the signaling pathways of two proteins that have been linked to ovarian and other cancers. Under Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Pam Kreeger, she is focusing on how tumor cells interpret signals activated by these proteins, and how this activity influences cancer progression.

And while she is clearly enthusiastic about her work, Bourgeois, a fourth-year PhD student, admits that she didn’t know what she would be studying when she went to graduate school. She credits the John P. Holton Wisconsin Distinguished Graduate Fellowship she received in 2010 with providing her the flexibility to develop a plan for her research. “Having this fellowship my first year allowed me to do a lot of preliminary research and gather data,” she says.

John Holton, who established the fellowship in 1998, graduated from UW-Madison in 1972 with a BA in history. In graduate school, he became interested in health systems engineering research. After receiving his MS in industrial engineering in 1975, he went on to a successful career in healthcare, founding two healthcare-related companies. “I believe everyone has the right to the best possible healthcare,” he says, “and I want to help expand the engineering footprint in healthcare.”

When Holton established the fellowship, the BME department was only a couple of years old. Yet, Holton says he was impressed by the vision and drive of the department’s leaders. Now, he says he’s delighted to have been able to help advance the BME department because of how BME students have helped the public. “Engineers have the opportunity to provide devices and systems that will make a difference in people’s lives,” he says.

Molly Carroll, the Holton Fellowship recipient in 2012, is another student interested in healthcare solutions. Like Bourgeois, Carroll says the Holton Fellowship allowed her to find a research topic that resonated with her. “Because I was able to choose from a variety of projects,” Carroll says, “I had the opportunity to find the one that matched my interests and the one I had the most passion in pursuing.”

Carroll’s passion led her to ovarian cancer research in the Kreeger lab. Carroll is investigating the signaling interactions between ovarian cancer and macrophages. She hopes to understand how specific signals relate to the cancer’s progression. That knowledge, in turn, could identify targets in the signaling process that could aid current cancer treatments. Her focus is on making practical healthcare advances. “I want the research I perform to be translatable in a clinical setting,” she says, “and I hope to retain that through close collaboration with researchers and physicians.”

Bourgeois’ and Carroll’s fellowships benefited Kreeger, their advisor, also. Kreeger, who came to UW-Madison in 2009, says students with the Holton Fellowship enabled her to establish herself at the university. “As a new professor,” Kreeger says, “funds are always tight, so the support from the Holton Fellowship gave me the flexibility to stick with projects long enough to develop them so that they could be funded externally (in this case, by the American Cancer Society).”

Bourgeois says receiving the Holton Fellowship is inspiring. “It’s humbling to know people are donating specifically to graduate students in engineering because they find it important,” she says. “It motivates you because you know they are supporting you and believe in what you’re doing.”

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