From Broken Fingers to Top NSBE Research Honor

April 23, 2015

For most people, breaking three knuckles would inspire nothing more than a pained shriek and a trip to the emergency room. For senior biomedical engineering student Chelsea Stephens ’15, it was motivation to follow a path that led to her earning first place in the Technical Research Exhibition at the 2015 National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Convention in Los Angeles. When she was just 13 years old, a botched handspring landed Stephens in the hospital to have the damage in her hand repaired with metal pins. Even then, her reaction wasn’t one of trepidation or fear—it was one of intense interest. “I just really enjoyed the whole process of being a patient. Observing everything, interacting with the doctor and the nurses, even the follow-ups and the therapies — it was all just so fascinating,” describes Stephens. The experience left her with a scar on her right hand and a desire to pursue orthopedic surgery. It also set her on a path that led her to major in biomedical engineering with a pre-med track and a minor in biology at Syracuse University. Through the University, she was given the opportunity to attend the National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) Research Experience and Mentoring (REM) conference. There, she had the chance to speak with the event’s keynote speaker and prestigious University of Connecticut professor Cato Laurencin. “Professor Laurencin started off as an undergraduate engineering student just like me. I saw him as someone who was once where I was and had achieved what I hope to achieve. At the time I was finding it difficult to manage everything and was considering dropping engineering. I expressed this to him and he encouraged me to stick with it and even offered me an REM position in his lab at UConn.” After a good deal of deliberation, Stephens accepted the position and in the summer of 2014 completed research that she details in her award-winning poster, “Patient-Derived Biomaterials for Bone Regeneration.” The research she took part in led to the creation of a biomaterial that is able to regenerate bone using blood and bone marrow stem cells from a patient’s own body. The solution is intended for treating serious breaks in long bones like femurs to avoid amputation or life-long disability. Although the broken fingers she suffered as a teenager would not qualify as a serious break, they did inspire Stephen’s current trajectory. After she has earned her degree from Syracuse, she will continue to pursue orthopedic surgery to be just like the doctor that treated her all those years ago. After she graduates will begin to apply to M.D. Ph.D. programs to earn training in the medical field and participate in more research. “Above all else, I want to help people. I want to be on the clinical side of things as well as the research side of things. As I mature, I hope to reach a point in my career that I am able to move into teaching and become a professor. I really want to do it all.”