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Lumen Scholar finds inspiration from family in research project

Elon University senior Erica Schenhals has researched the effect oxytocin has on immune cells and breast cancer cells.

Elon University senior Erica Schenhals and her Lumen Prize mentor, Assistant Professor Tonya Train

Erica Schenhals traces her interest in scientific research back to early childhood when her aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and chose to forgo chemotherapy and radiation, instead using alternative treatments to battle the disease.

When the cancer entered remission years later, Schenhals wondered about the benefits of nontraditional therapies, and her sights were set on medicine. Now, the senior biology major is using the university’s top prize for undergraduate research to examine the effect of the hormone oxytocin on immune cells and breast cancer cells.

Her work is the most recent in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Prize scholars in the Class of 2013.

Oxytocin, commonly known as the love hormone, is being studied as an alternative treatment for several diseases such as autism. Initially, Schenhals studied the effect of the hormone on cells of the immune system, where her results suggested that it had no adverse or beneficial effects. She later studied the hormone’s role in breast cancer cells.

Oxytocin is released during breast-feeding and some researchers contend it could play a protective role, since women who breast-feed have lower incidences of breast cancer after menopause. Schenhals’ work with oxytocin and cells has revealed that specific proteins in breast cancer cells are activated by oxytocin, research she recently presented at the American Society for Cell Biology Conference in San Francisco.

She is now attempting to determine the exact impact of the proteins and whether they cause division, replication, or death of the cell.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen scholars work closely with faculty members to pursue and complete their projects.

Efforts include coursework, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summer, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

Assistant Professor Tonya Train, Schenhals’ research mentor, described the work as significant since oxytocin is available over the counter and not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

“As a scholar, Erica has learned and performed technologies used widely in cutting edge biomedical research,” Train said. “She is performing at the level of a graduate student with her ability to design experiments, analyze data and comprehend complex systems.”

Schenhals also serves as volunteer coordinator for Open Door Clinic in Burlington and said she is motivated by her interactions with patients there, as well as thoughts of her aunt, whose cancer has returned and spread.

“I’m extremely passionate about helping the underrepresented and the underserved receive healthcare, an interest that spurred from my aunt’s experiences with alternative therapies that were not covered by insurance,” she said. “Witnessing that inspired me to tune into another side of healthcare where certain types of care are almost a privilege and not a right.”

Schenhals plans to attend medical school after spending the next year working with intestinal stem cells at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. She said she couldn’t imagine her undergraduate experience without the Lumen Prize.

“Starting this project, I never would have expected that I would love research this much and have such a passion for it,” she said. “I suspected I might incorporate it into my future, but now I’m positive of that.”  

Eric Townsend,
4/5/2013 8:15 AM