Brittany Balhouse, of Hickory, North Carolina, originally planned to study civil engineering, but a career fair exhibit on biomedical engineering captured her attention. Now the doctoral student at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences works in the school’s Laboratory for Integrative Tumor Ecology and wants to interest more women in the field. Balhouse said she wanted to share her excitement with high school students, especially girls.
“As an undergraduate, I realized there was not a strong female presence studying engineering and science,” she said.
Recently, Balhouse realized her goal, conducting a cancer research lab at Blacksburg High School. The Graduate School named her a 2016 Citizen Scholar for her outreach to the community, sharing her research with students.
“The big goal is to get them excited,” She said.
She enlisted the aid of fellow bioengineering students so each of the four lab stations would have a Virginia Tech researcher on hand to guide discovery. Balhouse gave a brief overview of the field of biomedical engineering and then used a series of slides to illustrate her talk about cell morphology and cancer.
Students watched and scribbled notes as she flashed pictures of healthy cells, then showed images of cancer versions of those cells. But cancer is not an outsider, she noted. Cancer starts from within each body.
“At its most basic level, cancer starts from a single cell, your own cell. The reason researching cancer is so difficult is because it is so individualized,” she said.
She explained that part of her research focused on finding therapies that would attack only the cancer cells, and leave healthy cells alone, something most anti-cancer drugs today do not do.
Students asked her how she became involved in biomedical engineering research. Balhouse said she started with undergraduate research on heart valves.
“That’s what got me interested in the material properties of tissues in organs, and that got me involved in cell research, and I’ve never stopped.”
Asked why she chose to focus on cancer, Balhouse said, “It’s something that I am passionate about. It affected my grandmother, so it is close to my heart.”
After her introduction, the students moved to the microscopes at their stations and examined cell lines to determine whether they were healthy or showed signs of cancer.
Balhouse also tossed in what she called “a curve ball,” slides of muscle cells, to see if the students could determine whether they were healthy or not. They then measured the cells and worked with Balhouse to plot their findings.
Blacksburg High student Erika Gresh, 17, who plans to become a physician’s assistant, said the lab reinforced her interest in medicine. Other students said Balhouse and her Virginia Tech colleagues made research “look less overwhelming,” and several said they wanted to learn more about cancer and biomedical engineering.
Dan Sweeney, one of the Virginia Tech students assisting in the lab, applauded Balhouse’s desire to motivate students by providing them with research practice. A doctoral student from Mason, Ohio, who works in the Bioelectrical-mechanical Systems Laboratory ─ the lab next door to Balhouse’s ─ he said his high school chemistry teacher was an industrial chemist who shared how lessons were used in the field.
“It’s important to see real applications people use,” Sweeney said.
Balhouse, who once considered applying to medical school, plans to continue her research and hopes to inspire younger students to do the same. "I decided I could help thousands of people if I became a doctor, but if I am in engineering, my research could help millions." She hopes more women join her in the effort.