Major: Chemical Engineering (Bioengineering track)
“Quantitative Characterization of Elastin in the Wall of the Human Femoropopliteal Artery”
The femoropopliteal artery is significantly different from other arteries in that it experiences large deformations during locomotion. Elastin fibers within the wall of the artery help it resume shape after limb flexion. It was hypothesized that the integrity and structure of elastin in the femoropopliteal wall correlates with patient demographics and cardiovascular risk factors. Longitudinal Verhoeff–Van Gieson stained images from 40 human subjects 13 – 68 years old were analyzed using an in-house developed MATLAB program. The code quantified elastin layer thickness, density and continuity. Multiple regression analysis assessed correlation of elastin characteristics to subject demographics and risk factors. External elastic lamina thickness strongly correlates with age (Pearson correlation coefficient = -0.52), while fiber density and continuity show minimal correlation with age (Pearson correlation coefficients = -0.25 and -0.19 respectively). Multiple regression analysis demonstrates that age is the strongest contributor to thickness with a standardized beta value of -0.53. Dyslipidemia contributes to decreased average fiber density with a standardized beta value of -0.32. BMI contributes to the number of breaks in elastin as well as fiber continuity with standardized beta values of 0.33 and -0.37, respectively. Understanding the physical characteristics of the femoropopliteal artery’s external elastic lamina in the context of patient-specific demographic and risk factor information will improve knowledge of peripheral artery disease pathophysiology and spur the development of better treatment methods and devices. It is envisioned that the image analysis code developed as part of this project will be applied to other major arteries and help quantify their microstructural organization.
What research experiences have you had?
During my high school summers, I interned at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. While at NASA, I worked on a team to develop various instruments for remote sensing of gas concentrations in the atmospheres of Mars and the Earth.
This past summer, I interned at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in the department of Vascular Surgery. My main project was to design a program to analyze microscopic cross sections of arteries and determine certain characteristics of their elastic microstructure. I used this program to develop a preliminary model of these arteries and how they change with age and various risk factors. This model could ultimately be used by doctors to help them obtain a clearer “view” of their patient’s arteries early on in a case. In order to retrieve data for this project, I also spent a significant amount of time dissecting human arteries and testing their mechanical properties. Another project of mine involved performing comparative genomic studies to isolate mutations responsible for causing abdominal aortic aneurysms. Finally, when time permitted, I was able to shadow surgeons in the operating room, and see what the real life of a surgeon is like!
How did you find the research opportunity?
I found this research opportunity by searching for summer MD/PhD programs. This search returned a page on the American Association of Medical Colleges website that listed several excellent summer programs for students interested in pursuing an MD/PhD.
Who did you work with on this project?
I worked with a multitude of people from various backgrounds. My supervisor was Dr. B. Timothy Baxter, a vascular surgeon at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. I primarily worked with Dr. Alexey Kamenskiy, a biomechanical engineer, and Dr. Jason MacTaggart, another vascular surgeon. Along with this diverse group of mentors, I worked with several other students, some undergrads and some in the midst of their residencies.
Do you get course credit for this work? Paid? How much time do you put into it?
I did receive course credit (Prac 098), as well as a stipend of 3,000. However, I never really thought of either of these facts. I was required to spend about 40 hours every week, but I found myself spending upwards of 60 hours some weeks (especially if I was shadowing a surgeon, or performing an important experiment). This may seem like too much, but I must admit that I enjoyed every second.
What academic background did you have before you started?
I had completed all the introductory science courses (CHEM 102, BIOL 141, MATH 251, PHYS 122), but did not have any “specialized” knowledge per se.
How did you learn what you needed to know to be successful in this lab?
Since my project involved a lot of coding, I learned a substantial amount from online lectures on image processing, tutorials for fast processing, and similar digital sources. I also learned a great deal from reading old papers in the field of biomechanics and discussing these papers with my mentors.
What was the hardest part about your research?
The hardest part of my research was working with variability in human samples. It is difficult to analyze perfect images, but to analyze fuzzy images with different color distributions and shapes is an entirely different story altogether.
What was the most unexpected thing?
The most unexpected part of my research was the fact that I could work on the computer one day, work in the wet-lab the next day, and observe an operation the day after that!
How does this research experience relate to your work in other classes?
This research relates to my work in ENCH 215, the first major class in the chemical engineering sequence. I am currently working with a team to develop a heart-lung machine, which essentially acts like an external pump that oxygenates blood during open-heart surgery. We are using principles of hemodynamics that were the basis of my summer research.
What did you gain from presenting your work at ABRCMS?
Presenting at ABRCMS helped me review my research as well as the relevant literature on a far deeper level than I had over the summer. I was able to organize my work into a clear sequence of events and really understand the impact of what I had done. ABRCMS also offered me the opportunity to share my excitement for the subject with other people, and get their feedback on my work. Hearing and answering people’s questions also sparked new ideas that I hope to expound upon in the future.
What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
First, get to know your professors! However, do not do this only for a recommendation letter, do this because your professors can offer excellent advice in helping you get into research, and ultimately into graduate/professional school later!
Second, apply to as many places as you can, and be proactive. Also, don’t dismiss a program because it doesn’t have EXACTLY what you want to do… its better to have 5 options to pick from than none at all.
What are your career goals?
I hope to pursue an MD/PhD after graduating from UMBC.
What else are you involved in on campus?
I play viola in the UMBC community symphony, I am a member of the Honors College Council, and I am a sophomore representative in our chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. I am also a part of our schools chapter of the American Chemical Society and Pre-Med society.
What else are you involved in outside of campus?
I co-teach Greek Folk dance at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.