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College of Human Ecology

Michelle Higgins readies for research career

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Michelle HigginsMichelle Higgins, graduating senior in biochemistry and nutritional sciences, has been involved with research since her freshman year at K-State, and her involvement in multiple projects has given her insight and practice for a research career.

"I really like the methods behind research, and as a freshman at K-State I knew that research might be a career for me," Higgins said. "In order to find out, I wanted to work on a few projects."

She now has researched several areas of cancer and is interested in doing cancer research involving drug development. She also is interested in HIV/AIDS and neuroscience research.

Studied diet and cancer with Wang

Higgins began her research experience in 2005 as a freshman working in the lab of George Wang, associate professor of human nutrition. She studied the effects of diet and exercise on cancerous tumor development.

Her sophomore year she worked in the Nutrient Metabolism Lab with a graduate student who was studying resistant starch and glucose blood levels. The student had created a granola bar that she thought would not cause spikes in blood glucose levels.

"I thought that was interesting because it gave me clinical trial experience, and for a long time I've been interested in pharmacology, so that project gave me patient experience," Higgins said.

Concentrates on cancer cells

As a junior, Higgins was a National Exchange Student at Oregon State University. She did research with Emily Ho, associate professor of health and human sciences, and studied applications of nutrient interventions. Through the research experience, Higgins learned how to use pipettes, plate cancer cells and grow populations of cancer cells.

"It gave me a lot of basic knowledge about how a lab runs and how to make solutions, and there I learned a technique called Western blotting," she said.

The following summer, Higgins spent 10 weeks at the University of Kansas Medical Center for a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. She tested pharmacologic interventions for prostate cancer. She said the project involved looking at drugs that target a protein called Hsp90, which folds other proteins that have been linked to helping cancer progress.

Her responsibilities were to maintain populations of cancer cells and treat them with different concentrations of different drugs, Higgins said. She also used the Western blotting technique to determine how much protein was knocked out.

Looks at drugs and cancer

Higgins continued the project in a College of Veterinary Medicine pharmacology lab at K-Sate. She worked with Lisa Freeman, associate vice president for innovation at the K-State Olathe Innovation Campus and a professor of pharmacology.

"I was using the same drugs from the research at the KU Medical Center, but this time instead of looking at how the drugs affect cancer cells on a plate, we were looking at the drugs in vivo in animals versus in vitro," she said.

Higgins received a Barry M. Goldwater scholarship in 2008. The nationally competitive scholarship, for students in science, mathematics or engineering and who plan a career in research, provides up to $7,500 annually for the final one or two years of undergraduate studies. Higgins said she benefited from the application process of writing essays and answering questions about her research.

"You have to concisely describe your research and how that affects you," she said. "I've worked in all these different labs and did all these different projects, and it just helped me decide among all those things what I liked best, what I learned from them and where I can go from there."

Named Outstanding Senior

Higgins, who graduates in May, will work in Manhattan until the fall, then take a two-month bicycle tour of the southwestern United States. She eventually plans to pursue graduate studies in pharmacology, possibly through an international program.

Higgins has been a member of the K-State women's rowing team since her freshman year. She also is a College of Human Ecology ambassador and has been involved with the College of Human Ecology Honors Program, Alpha Chi Sigma professional chemistry fraternity, Pre-Pharmacy Club and Phi Kappa Phi honor society. She also was named an outstanding graduating senior of the College of Human Ecology.

A 2004 graduate of Manhattan High School, she is the daughter of Mary Meck Higgins, Manhattan, and the late Randy Higgins.

Prepared by Media Relations

This article was posted on Wednesday, May 13, 2009, and is filed under Food, Nutrition, Dietetics and Health.