I was lucky enough to land an exclusive interview with Bernadette Haig, a Fordham junior who recently finished up research on the development of a microsphere Raman probe, which has exciting cancer treatment implications.
Bernadette, an Engineering Physics and Classical Civilization double major, worked as the sole student researcher under Dr. Stephen Holler to investigate optical techniques for analyzing cancerous tissue in vivo. To this end, she worked on developing a monolithic fiber probe that utilizes Raman spectroscopy to distinguish cancerous tissue from healthy tissue. Raman spectroscopy relies on the Raman effect: when light hits a substance, some of it is absorbed as vibrational energy and remitted at a lower frequency than the incident light. The spectrum of intensity vs. wave number (an arbitrary unit for wave length) produced by Raman spectroscopy is unique to each substance, and comparisons of spectra can distinguish different substances from one another.
Bernadette succeeded in building a probe that can spatially resolve different spectra from a regions of less than 100 micrometers. Having partnered with an otolaryngologist at Mt. Sinai, Bernadette received both cancerous and healthy tissue samples, and succeeded in efficiently collecting legible Raman signals. The verb “built” is not an exaggeration: last year’s research team worked with prefabricated probes, but Bernadette assembled her probes by fusing optical fibers into a glass sphere by hand.
“Optical fiber is fragile and I’m clumsy at times,” Bernadette said. “I probably assembled dozens of probes over the course of my research.”
Having successfully and efficiently gathered Raman samples, the next step for Bernadette’s project will be to establish a correlation between Raman spectra and a cancer marker. Dr. Holler and other experts in the field are confident that the unique composition of cancerous DNA will yield a unique Raman spectroscopy profile as soon as a large enough sample size can be analyzed. Given this, the potential benefits of this probe are immense.
“If we can get our probe ruggedized and mass-produced, it could reduce the invasiveness and improve the accuracy of determining the margins of cancer in hospitals across the country,” Bernadette said.
When asked how she chose this particular research subject, Bernadette recalled, “I marched into Dr. Holler’s office, told him I wanted to do research, and he showed me all the projects he’s working on. I chose this one because it seemed the most hands-on, and the most significant potential impact.”
How would Bernadette describe her experience?
“Frustrating, but rewarding,” Bernadette said. “Frustrating because the delicate instruments we were working with, such as the spectrometer and the probe itself, were often finicky and difficult. My research was rewarding because of all the things I learned. [I learned] a ton about optics and spectroscopy, how to work with a spectrometer, how to build a probe.”
Bernadette also saw some humor in her experience, describing how she had to wear long sleeves and pants in the middle of the summer because of the freezing temperatures in the lab.
“I got a few weird looks that week,” Bernadette joked.
Overall, Bernadette certainly saw the benefits of research.
“[Research] lets undergraduates determine what they’re interested in and what they like working on,” Bernadette said. “It’s good hands-on work, and gives you a taste of professional experience.”