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Mary Sheehan Receives NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Mary Sheehan

Mary Sheehan

Mary Chase Sheehan of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department is one of three UMass College of Engineering students who are receiving Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Each of these distinguished fellowships provides a stipend and educational allowance of $46,000 annually for three years.

According to the NSF website, the purpose of its Graduate Research Fellowship Program is to help ensure the quality, vitality, and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce of the United States. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing full-time, research-based, graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or in STEM education.

For her NSF project, Sheehan is pursuing a research program at the intersection of computational modeling, medical devices, and women’s health by creating a more precise technique for cancer biopsy.

Sheehan’s long-term goal, working on the research team of her mentor, MIE Assistant Professor Govind Srimathveeravalli, is to advance the survival and well-being of cancer patients by creating technologies that improve the precision and accuracy of disease diagnosis.

The objective of Sheehan’s NSF research proposal is to advance the concept of a pioneering biopsy technology that she characterizes as “needle-based volumetric tumor profiling” by building mathematical models and the accompanying methodology for a more thorough, revealing, and accurate form of biopsy than is currently available.

Sheehan observes that the clinical practice of biopsy typically samples less than 1 percent of the tumor volume, while tumors exhibit considerable heterogeneity in their cellular make-up and activity of the cells. Current biopsy practices are therefore inadequate to fully characterize the diversity of the tumor, impacting the ability to plan appropriate treatment regimen or predict propensity for metastatic disease in patients.

To address this vital diagnostic issue, Sheehan plans to utilize a process called “Electroporation,” which is a technique used in the lab and clinic primarily for intracellular gene and drug delivery by application of ultrashort electric pulses using needle electrodes that transiently alter the barrier function of the cell membrane. Cells undergoing Electroporation can leak intracellular proteins and nucleic acids, which Sheehan plans to collect and utilize to create a much more accurate diagnosis of cancer tumors.

This is a process that Sheehan has demonstrated in preliminary lab work, enabled by the groundbreaking mathematical models she is developing. Her initial research promises ultimately to produce optimal parameters for a much more representative tumor sampling than current biopsies provide, while at the same time minimizing potential tissue damage to the patient.

Sheehan has also been actively working to contribute and build an equitable and inclusive climate for woman engineers on the campus. She has led K-12 engineering design outreach programs in collaboration with local schools and has participated in Dean’s Diversion, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Council in the College of Engineering.

As part of her fellowship work, Sheehan has been accepted into the College of Engineering’s Residential Academic Program with a teaching fellowship. Sheehan will use this venue to build and teach a course of medical devices for women’s health application, using that as a platform to recruit and foster effective allies for women engineers.

Sheehan aspires to become an engineering faculty member in the future, and this NSF fellowship, the DEI teaching fellowship, and her research are moving her closer to achieving this goal. (April 2022)