News & Stories

Lilly Cook and Lisa Cooper, Ph.D.

From Bats to Biomedical Engineering

What if bones became more flexible as we grew older, instead of more brittle? This is a reality in bats, and Lisa Cooper, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology, is looking at their genes to find the secret to their resilient skeletons. Alongside to help her: postdoctoral fellow Hope Ball, Ph.D., and during the 2017-18 academic year, Lilly Cook, a senior intern from Bio-Med Science Academy, a STEM+M school.

Cook heard about Dr. Cooper’s lab through another high school student who had interned there. She wants to become an engineer, and doctors Cooper and  Ball showed her how techniques employed by biologists and engineers can overlap.

Cook was involved both in and out of the lab. Dr. Ball taught Cook lab techniques like real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), which measures how gene expression changes over the lifespan of bats. Cook’s work focused on tracking expression of genes that were responsible for making the bones resilient to fracture.

Dr. Ball also showed Cook how to turn CT scans of the bones into digital 3D models. Cook had some experience in 3D modeling through an engineering course she had taken, so she was interested to see how a similar program was utilized in a medical setting.

Outside of the lab, Cook traveled with Dr. Cooper and Dr. Ball to elementary school workshops, where they discussed the importance of bats and what makes them so special.

A moment that stood out to Cook was when elasticity tests were being performed. The student was surprised to find that the technique to measure this was something she had learned in an engineering course she had previously taken. “It’s cool to find what I’m interested in at a place that you wouldn’t normally think has anything to do with engineering,” Cook said.

Dr. Cooper and Dr. Ball pointed out that there is a whole field where medicine and engineering intersect: biomedical engineering. Cook plans to study mechanical engineering, but this internship has her thinking about biomedical engineering as another area to explore.

Amber Cocchiola, an intern in the Office of Public Relations and Marketing during the 2017-18 year, while a senior at Bio-Med Science Academy, contributed this article.