UT Austin Plan II Honors Student Is Making Biomedical History

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in a news update by the College of Liberal Arts at UT Austin….

A UT Austin undergraduate’s research could help change the way doctors diagnose diseases with known protein biomarkers like multiple sclerosis and leukemia.

Courtney Koepke, a Plan II and biomedical engineering junior, is an undergraduate research assistant at UT Austin’s Laboratory of Biomaterials, Drug Delivery and Bionanotechnology.

“As a freshman entering college, I didn’t know much about research or understand the important role it plays in the continual advancement of society,” Koepke says.

That changed when Nicholas Peppas, a biomedical engineering researcher at UT Austin, was a guest lecturer in one of Koepke’s classes. Intrigued by his presentation, Koepke looked into the research he and his lab were doing.

UT Plan II student Courney Koepke--"the rest, as they say, is history."

“As I read some of the recent publications from the lab, I realized I wanted to be a part of the research that was being conducted and a part of the group of individuals truly aspiring to change the world,” she says. “The rest, as they say, is history.”

Koepke began working in Peppas’ lab at the beginning of her sophomore year. The experience has not only served as a vehicle for intellectual discovery, but also self-discovery.

“The motivating idea behind research is the discovery of new knowledge, which drives innovation and improvement in all areas of society,” Koepke says. “Being a part of that societal improvement and something bigger than oneself is something every undergraduate student can benefit from. Furthermore, research can allow undergraduates to uncover their strengths and weaknesses as well as likes and dislikes at an early age.”

The research Koepke is conducting is focused on molecularly imprinted polymers, or plastic antibodies, which are created in a lab to mimic naturally occurring antibodies.

“My research focuses on plastic antibodies as a recognition element for disease because over time naturally occurring antibodies become unstable and useless for recognition,” she says. “The goal of my research is to create a diagnostic tool to recognize protein biomarkers for disease. Using plastic antibodies as the recognition element in a diagnostic tool would allow for quicker and easier diagnosis of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, meningitis and leukemia.”

The liberal arts component to Koepke’s education has made a big impact on the way she approaches her work. As a Plan II student, she’s worked closely with students from a variety of backgrounds, who have exposed her to diverse opinions that challenge and expand her worldview.

“Taking classes such as world literature and philosophy has helped me mature intellectually in ways my science and engineering classes never could have,” Koepke says. “Liberal arts classes have forced me to question society and how it’s structured, as well as humanity and what our duty to it is as individuals.”

Koepke serves as president of Texas Engineering World Health, an organization that aims to create more equitable global health through innovation in medical technology.

Last year, Koepke and her teammates designed an app called Audiometry Made Easy, which provides a free audiometry test to assess hearing loss. It’s an important resource, especially in developing countries where a normal audiometer is an expensive and widely unavailable tool. The app is currently available in the Google Play store, and has received feedback from people using it around the world.

Koepke is also an active member in Women in Biomedical Engineering and she recently joined Texas 4000, through which she will bike from Austin to Anchorage in the summer of 2016 to raise money and awareness for cancer research.


AAUW Sponsors STEM Camps for Girls in Early Teens in Four States

Editor’s Note: This article is from the American Association of University Women.  It is the first post in a new category for us called Women in Honors.

Four Camps Launch Nationwide This Summer

By Katie Broendel, broendelk@aauw.org

WASHINGTON – The American Association of University Women (AAUW) will offer four Tech Trek camps across the country this month to encourage girls to explore their interests in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The camps will engage approximately 160 girls from Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, and Washington state.

Tech Trek has grown from one camp in California in 1998 to 10 successful camps on eight college campuses throughout the state today, and AAUW is now expanding the program nationally. Campers, who are about to enter the eighth grade, stay on college campuses for a week and perform experiments and other hands-on activities and interact with women role models who work in STEM fields.

Attendees are nominated by their seventh grade math and science teachers, and many come from populations where STEM careers may not be an obvious choice. AAUW member volunteers fundraise to subsidize the cost of the camps for campers, and families pay just a nominal fee for girls to attend and participate. AAUW’s commitment ensures that girls will be able to have this empowering experience no matter their socioeconomic status.

The national expansion of Tech Trek camps was inspired by AAUW’s 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, which made recommendations for helping more girls develop an interest and persist in pursuing STEM careers.

“To be globally competitive, the United States needs more people going into STEM fields,” said AAUW Executive Director Linda D. Hallman. “As 50 percent of the overall workforce but less than 25 percent of the STEM workforce, women need to be the focus of efforts to increase STEM participation in the United States. Encouraging an early interest in STEM for girls makes all the difference. Eighth grade is when a girl’s interest can be either lost or enhanced for a lifetime. We want to make sure these girls know that they can be successful, and we hope that inspiring them leads to more women in the STEM pipeline.”

AAUW supports women and girls in STEM through research, funding, and programs like Tech Trek and Tech Savvy. Tech Savvy, a daylong program created eight years ago by the AAUW Buffalo (NY) Branch, works to expose young women to opportunities and careers in STEM fields though fun, hands-on activities. Like Tech Trek, Tech Savvy has seen great success, and it is expanding to 10 new cities.

AAUW will host an interactive exhibit at a STEM fair on July 17 on Capitol Hill. The event is co-hosted by Women’s Policy Inc. and the leadership of the congressional women’s caucus. The AAUW exhibit will highlight the findings and recommendations of our Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics research, which explores the environmental and social barriers to women’s participation in STEM.