Heather Powell

Heather Powell (left) chats with a group of BGSU undergraduate and graduate students following her Feb. 15 talk.

Alumna’s research provides hope for burn victims

How does one go from being an undergraduate geology/paleobiology major to a postdoctoral research fellow in materials science at a major research center, working on developing replacement skin for young burn victims? In the case of Heather Powell, a 1999 BGSU graduate, a small research grant she received as an undergraduate led her to other possibilities and a change in career direction.

Powell returned to BGSU Feb. 15 to share her work—optimizing a bioengineered skin model for clinical use in the pediatric burn unit at Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati—and to talk about the process of transitioning from one area of science to another.

Her talk, though not about geology, was arranged by her former BGSU geology professor and mentor Dr. John Farver, now the director of undergraduate research. It was under his guidance that she applied for and received a research grant from the Materials Research Society, leading to her eventual specialty.

“Heather is a wonderful role model for women in science, and for anyone interested in pursuing an interest in science,” Farver said admiringly. “She’s doing cutting-edge work that is being funded by a major research organization. And she’s really just getting started—it wasn’t that many years ago that she was sitting in these chairs, listening to these same talks.”

Speaking from her office at the hospital in Cincinnati before visiting her alma mater, Powell said, “My research experience as an undergraduate was fantastic. I actually did two projects in John Farver’s lab, one in paleobiology and then one in materials science research.” She explained that the materials science project conducted at BGSU involved the design of bioceramics for the replacement of diseased or damaged bone.

“I realized that while I enjoyed paleobiology, it wasn’t the way I wanted to spend my career. Through my materials research grant, I was able to learn a variety of characterization techniques including the scanning electron microscope in the biology department—which they let me use for free even though it’s an expensive piece of equipment—and I loved it.”

She also said the work confirmed her desire to be a scientist. “It’s such a unique and rewarding experience to conduct research as an undergraduate. Getting hands-on experience gives you great insight when choosing a career path. For some people, when they do an experiment and the results don’t come out as they had expected, they get discouraged and find they don’t really like the process. But if you’re like the rest of us, it’s exciting and encourages you to do more.”

Participating in research is “an exceptional way to learn more about the other sciences,” she said. “And many research techniques are fundamentally the same from one area of science to another. Learning them as an undergraduate at BGSU made the transition to graduate-level research much smoother.

“Getting hands-on experience really gives you a sense of why you’re doing things, especially in a field-based science like geology,” she added. “And participating in research often gives you an understanding of how your work affects the general population.”

Powell’s educational career has led her from her BGSU bachelor’s degree in geology, with a paleobiology emphasis, to master’s and doctoral degrees in materials science and engineering at Ohio State University, to the Shriners hospital. She was also a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellow from 2001-04, one of only 285 out of 3,200 applicants to receive the designation.

Her work at the Shriners hospital involves directing research on autologous bioengineered skin, in which cells from a small biopsy collected from a patient’s own skin are grown in a culture and then put onto a collagen-based scaffold. “This process results in an engineered skin graft that is applied to the patient’s wounds. The benefit of this method is that from one small piece of donor skin, the laboratory can generate a thousand times more skin for grafting, eliminating the need for painful harvesting of skin from unburned areas of the patient. And sufficient donor sites are often not available in severe burns,” Powell said.

She conducts preclinical trials on the product to improve its design for both cost and mechanical strength. The products she produces in the lab are used for children who have third-degree burns over at least 60 percent of their body.

Changing direction
Powell said it’s important for students to know that, while it puts more pressure on you to take additional classes if you transition from one area of science to another, “it’s not outside the realm of possibility. If you want it, you have to work at it.”

Besides, she pointed out, using her own area of materials science as an example, even if students were to major in the field at one institution as undergraduates, their core curriculum would likely be slightly different than the university’s they choose to attend for a doctoral program; thus, all students arrive with different strengths and educational backgrounds.

She added that students just entering college who want to major in science or medicine should not choose a school solely on its reputation in those areas. “You always think you have to go to a large, Research I school, but you don’t. Your undergraduate career is what you make of it.

“You just need to inquire, and a lot of researchers would be glad to have undergraduates helping them with their projects. So stop by and ask your professors if they have any projects under way that you could get in on. The work might not always be paid, but the experience you get will be worth it.”

In Powell’s case, that has been more than proven true.

February 19, 2007