Elisabeth Martin, Bioengineering sophomore from Dunlap, Ill., recently received a $2,000 research support grant from the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The award, one of only 25 given to U of I undergraduates in 2019, covers research travel costs, living expenses during academic breaks, and materials or other ancillary costs related to her research. Martin’s project, supported in part by the OUR, is “Stability of stored microvesicles characterized by label-free optical imaging.”

Martin is an undergraduate researcher in cancer imaging at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and the only undergraduate in the Biophotonics Imaging Lab at Illinois, led by Bioengineering Prof. Stephen Boppart. As part of Boppart’s lab team, she is studying extracellular vesicles, ways of imaging them, and their potential use as biomarkers in disease diagnostics.

“We use fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy to probe the characteristics of certain autofluorescent molecules in cells,” Martin said. “In other words, these molecules release light when stimulated by a laser without needing to be tagged by an exogenous fluorescent molecule. This provides a way for us to investigate cellular processes without changing them through labeling techniques.”

Martin’s project aims to use this powerful optical technique to investigate how extracellular vesicles change with time and storage, an important question in the field of cancer research, as storage is inherent in the process of analyzing many samples.

At Illinois, Martin also is in the Cancer Scholars program, a unique “challenge-inspired” education model created at the university in 2014 that brings together approximately a dozen students in each year’s cohort — from Bioengineering, Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Political Science — in a unique and interdisciplinary student learning experience. The curriculum is focused on addressing societal challenges and providing solutions against cancer, and it incorporates real-world clinical, patient-oriented and entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as comprehensive disciplinary training.

In 2018, she was named to the Chancellor’s Scholars, a select designation that is part of the Campus Honors Program and recognizes freshmen and sophomores for their academic excellence and leadership potential. The Scholars program admits only about 125 students each year from more than 7,000 freshmen on campus.

In Summer 2019, as a student in Systems Engineering and Design in The Grainger College of Engineering, Martin participated in the Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP) at Illinois with the project, “Stability of Stored Melanoma Microvesicles Determined by Optical Imaging and Macrophage Activation Potential,” also advised by Boppart. She has since transferred into the Department of Bioengineering and expects to graduate in 2022. Her post-graduation interests include oncology, imaging, and research, and she says she is excited to explore the many opportunities ahead of her.

— Written by Susan McKenna, Bioengineering