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.
“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.