Medical Pioneer

Erin Rieke (left) has conducted much of her research in Christine Kelly’s chemical engineering lab. She has also shared her skills with younger students. As a member of OSU’s Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering Student Society, she visited Oregon schools, introducing students in grades three to 12 to bioengineering concepts. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

At one time, Erin Rieke might have been hesitant to take risks, glad to let someone else step up. Hard to tell now.

The 22-year-old senior in bioengineering from Tualatin, Oregon, has been doing extraordinary things for an undergraduate: culturing breast cancer cells, exposing them to controlled doses of radiation, learning how to make nanoparticles that can circulate in the body. She loves research, but the goal for this pre-med student is to become a doctor.

“First and foremost I want to be a physician. I want to heal people. I love learning, but it’s almost useless if you can’t apply it to helping people and making advances in society,” she says. “That’s what drives me.” Rieke has convinced others of her commitment, earning an OSU Presidential Scholar award and a nationally competitive Goldwater Scholarship.

During two summers as a student in OSU’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute program, she worked with Christine Kelly, associate professor in chemical engineering, to establish a new program of breast cancer research. Kelly and her team are taking advantage of recent developments in nanotechnology to create particles that can search out cancer cells and deliver lethal medication without harming surrounding tissues. Other team members include Professor Stuart Helfand and Wade Edris, lab tech, in Veterinary Medicine, and Kelsey Yee, a chemical engineering graduate student.

In 2005, Rieke’s role was to learn cell-culturing techniques and to create a supply of breast cancer cells for future experiments. She then conducted irradiation experiments, applying four different tests to monitor the effects on cells.

Last summer, she and Yee synthesized nanoparticles, a promising mechanism for delivering medications. They used molecules known as “dendrimers,” growing them through successive chemical reactions, a little like adding spokes to a bicycle wheel. Other molecules — such as anti-cancer drugs and fluorescent markers — can be attached to the ends of the spokes. The work will become part of Rieke’s Honors College thesis.

Not surprisingly, there were setbacks. “Erin is very good at troubleshooting. When things didn’t go right, she asked the right questions and searched the scientific literature for answers,” says Kelly, who asked Rieke to assist with a new course on cell culture and tissue engineering.

When she was still in high school, Rieke was attracted by challenging careers: law, medicine, engineering. “In an anatomy class, the intricacies of the human body just amazed me and blew me away,” she says. But she credits her father Ross Rieke, a civil engineer and OSU graduate (‘82), for encouraging her to consider engineering and to take chances.

“I have a lot of his engineering traits. It’s a little scary,” she says with a laugh.