Erica Schenhals ’13 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. The biology major used the university’s top prize for undergraduate research to examine the effect of the hormone oxytocin on immune cells and 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 presented at the American Society for Cell Biology Conference in San Francisco.
In her research, Schenhals determined the exact impact of the proteins and whether they cause division, replication or death of the cell.
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 says.
Schenhals also served as volunteer coordinator for Open Door Clinic in Burlington. She said her interactions with patients motivated her research, as well as thoughts of her aunt, whose cancer has returned and spread.
Schenhals plans to attend medical school after spending the 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 says. “I suspected I might incorporate it into my future, but now I’m positive of that.”