Aspiring neurosurgeon mapping cancer-suppressing protein

Jeff Rice
January 20, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Madison Evans is a Penn State biomedical engineering major who would like to become a neurosurgeon.

Before she heads off to medical school, though, the Schreyer Honors Scholar is part of a research project that could change the way her future patients receive treatment.

Evans, who is working in the lab of Professor of Biomedical Engineering Deb Kelly in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, has been mapping a full-length model of p53, a tumor suppressor protein found in various forms of cancer, in glioblastoma cells.

“If you have the structure of p53, it won’t only help you with brain cancer, it will help you with pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, so many cancers,” Evans said. “It’ll help you to figure out better treatments because you’ll understand how that protein works.”

Penn State graduate student Maria Solares, who worked with Kelly at Virginia Tech, had previously discovered a way to isolate the p53 protein from breast cancer cells so it could be examined via high-powered micro imaging. Using the same protocols, Evans has been examining the protein in human glioblastoma cells.

“She’s looking at the entire molecule in the context of brain tumors,” said Kelly, the Lloyd and Dottie Foehr Huck Chair in Molecular Biophysics, “and that’s never been done before.”

Kelly and her team are studying how p53 can either serve as a suppressor or a perpetuator of breast, brain and pancreatic cancers, three of the most aggressive forms of the disease; and potential applications of the team's findings for therapeutics.

“You can imagine if half of all cancers are related to this one protein,” she said, “it’s pretty important.”

Kelly invited Evans to join her lab after receiving a kind email from the student welcoming her to Penn State, and has been impressed with her research and writing skills. Evans had already built a strong foundation at various internships. She was a neurosurgical clinical research intern at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania; a research and development engineering intern at Medtronic, a medical device company;, and a process development engineering intern at BioMagnetic Solutions, a biotech company in State College. She was also part of the Women in Science and Engineering Research (WISER) program at Penn State.

She has enjoyed and learned from each experience, but she enjoyed the opportunities to interact with patients one-on-one the most, which was one of the reasons her interested gravitated from engineering to medicine.

“I want to have the experience interacting with patients. The internships helped me figure that out,” she said. “I loved the work I was doing, but I realized with those experiences that I wanted to be around patients more.”

Evans, a native of Fulton, Maryland, is a global health minor who plans to shadow physicians during a study abroad trip this summer. She is also looking forward to exploring more global health program options.

“I want to work with communities that are lacking resources or that don’t have the education on certain treatments or vaccines, don’t have access to a hospital nearby, or just generally don’t have what they need to be healthy,” she said.

Evans credits her mother, Keisha Barrett, with urging her to explore a career in engineering after seeing her excel in math and sciences classes at a young age. She mentioned that her family, especially her grandparents Daphne and Anthony Oliver, has provided her with an “emotional support system.” Evans also believes that joining the Honors College has encouraged her to challenge herself the last four years.

“I feel like I’m thriving in college because I’m surrounded by people who want to thrive as well,” she said.

And even if Evans doesn’t see a career in research in her future, the skills she is developing in the lab should serve her well as a physician.

“She’ll have a strong foundation in research in how to go in and read the latest and greatest findings in neurosurgery, in terms of journals and the latest research, and apply those analytical skills she’s learned as an engineer,” Kelly said. “It will help her have a better understanding of the medical field, the surgical field, how to take information in context and how to apply that to patients with a lot of rigor and a lot of analysis.”

  • Schreyer Scholar and biomedical engineering student Madison Evans

    Madison Evans prepares samples for protein analysis in the lab of Professor of Biomedical Engineering Deb Kelly.

    IMAGE: Jeff Rice
Last Updated January 20, 2020