Have you thanked a scientist or engineer today?

A post from our student blogger Megan

Every year the MSPL students get the distinct honor of working with Notre Dame research scientists and professors who have developed a novel method or tangible item that is in need of patent protection.  The students work hand-in-hand with these Notre Dame faculty inventors to formulate a patent application on the inventor’s idea.  The process is a ten month learning experience and involves understanding the inventor’s concept and then writing a claim set and ultimately developing a complete patent application with respect to the invention.  This process, while it appears quite succinct, requires lots of interaction and devotion of time to interviews with incredibly talented inventors.

The class that involves this thesis project is called “Capstone.”  The class itself meets one to two times per week, but it is the work that goes on outside the classroom that truly shapes the Capstone experience.  In general, my Capstone thesis project is a novel combination of washing, staining, and imaging a sample of tumor tissue all in one tiny device, resulting in a three-dimensional view of the tumor and its entire environment.  “So what?”  You ask. Well, this isn’t any regular biochemistry lab function; in fact, this is a genius collaboration with far-reaching diagnostic effects fabricated by three separate labs here on Notre Dame’s campus.

You see, up until now, in order to determine whether a patient had breast cancer or not, a fine needle biopsy was taken from the patient and then sliced into hundreds of small two-dimensional pieces.  These slices were each painstakingly mounted on separate slides, stained, and imaged under a microscope.  If you wanted an idea of what the entire tissue environment—and not just a sliver of the area—looked like, an extra step was added to this already complex method:  examiners would feed the microscope images into a computer program and attempt to piece the pictures back together to get some sort of image of the tumor and its surrounding area.  My capstone invention is groundbreaking because it proposes to keep the tissue surrounding the tumor completely intact.  This is important because it will lead to more accurate and informed cancer diagnoses.  Currently, pathologists make cancer treatment recommendations based on very small, two-dimensional biopsy samples, or the pieced-together computer generated methods.

To arrive at this understanding I have had the opportunity to get to know four inventors, invade each of their labs, and meet with them countless hours to discuss their invention.  Perhaps the most surprising thing about conversing with each one of them is their level of enthusiasm for what they have created.  You might be under the misconception that scientists and engineers are a little boring.  My four inventors are just the opposite.  Their faces each light up with excitement when they get the chance to explain why this invention is so important.  And just as they beam with passion over what they’ve discovered, they just as quickly bubble over with delight when they get to show you how they came up with the idea.

Because of my inventors’ fervor for discovery, my days are full of interest and purpose.  Take some time today to thank the scientists, engineers, researchers, educators, and anyone else you know who has worked tirelessly and thanklessly on new ideas that ultimately heal our society or just plain make our quality of life better.  They deserve some praise—so insist on it—even though they probably won’t want to take the credit.

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