LSU Student Researcher Unlocking Secrets of Breast Cancer
January 20, 2023
In this episode of the "On Par with the President" podcast, President William F. Tate
IV speaks with Alejandra Ham, an LSU graduate student who is focused on learning more about breast
cancer. The daughter of a physician and computer engineer, Alejandra said she has always been fascinated by the human body. While an undergraduate student at LSU, the COVID pandemic forced her to pivot on her research, but it led to the data being published. In this episode, Alejandra highlights that research experience, the “STEM girl boss” who inspires her, and empowering future scientists.
[00:00:00] President William F. Tate IV: Welcome to "On Par with the President." In this episode, I'm joined by Alejandra Ham, a biomedical engineering graduate student. She works on a research team that includes biological engineering professor Liz Martin and chemical engineering professor Adam Melvin on cancer research. Welcome.
[00:00:23] Alejandra Ham: Well, thank you for having me here.
[00:00:25] President William F. Tate IV: Great to have you here. We're gonna tee off. Tell us a little bit about your upbringing.
[00:00:30] Alejandra Ham: Yeah, so, um, I was actually born in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa. And right when I turned one years old, um, I moved to America, right actually, it marks an anniversary, I guess, my birthday's this Sunday, so I've been here since. And, uh, we moved from Lake Metairie to, um, Slidell, Louisiana, which is where I've grown up, um, my whole life basically, until I came to Baton Rouge for LSU.
[00:00:57] President William F. Tate IV: Awesome. Well, happy birthday. Well, you were an elite high school student and you could have gone anywhere in the country. What led you to decide to stay here closer to home and attend LSU for undergraduate and graduate work?
[00:01:13] Alejandra Ham: I really value, um, my family. Like, family's a very important part of my life and I knew, um, in high school that going to college I would wanna stay near to my family, you know. So I decided to apply to different universities that were near the area, but I decided to choose what I consider the best university in the state, um, LSU . And then from there, um, I was throughout my undergrad here and senior year comes along and by the blink of an eye I'm already about to graduate and I didn't, um, know exactly what my path would be from there. And, um, I worked with Dr. Martin, my PI, and I got advice from her. And I decided to pursue a master's and continue my education here, because I really enjoy the environment and enjoy the research lab that I work for.
[00:02:04] President William F. Tate IV: So what got you into research? That, that, that's, not everybody does research as an undergrad. How did you get started?
[00:02:11] Alejandra Ham: I didn't really think about research whenever I first started undergrad. I thought about it as a possibility, but, um, starting my second semester here at LSU, I was in a class, um, Intro to Bio Engineering kind of course, with Dr. Martin and I would hear her lectures and um, was very interested and just gained a lot of knowledge about breast cancer and how expansive the research field and it is. And um, I was really inspired by her. She's what I consider like a girl, you know, STEM girl boss. And, um, I was just really inspired by her and I thought I, it would be nice to follow her footsteps. So the next following year, um, I asked if I could work in her research lab, and that's how it all began.
[00:02:52] President William F. Tate IV: Well, biomedical engineering and biological engineering, as we call it here at LSU is an area where, um, you often find more women than in other fields of engineering.
[00:03:05] Alejandra Ham: Mm-hmm.
[00:03:05] President William F. Tate IV: Why do you think that's the case, and what inspired you to get into science? And what challenges do you see for others who might want to pursue the same journey?
[00:03:16] Alejandra Ham: Um, so I think science has always been in my life. Um, my dad in Honduras and my mom, my dad was a physician and my mom was a computer engineer, so I always was taught about the sciencey world and I really enjoyed it. I used to sneak into my dad's like office and I would pull out a medical book and look at, you know, diseases that people think are like icky looking. And, but I was just so fascinated that the human body had, you know, all the capabilities that it has and how it can change to something that we normally don't see, you know? Um, so I think that's why I started in science really. Uh, as a woman, I think breast cancer is very prominent in women. So I think that's why a lot of women end up coming to this research program cause they can, um, align to it or they know other fellow women that they might have it.
[00:04:06] The challenges I have faced really are just the courses, um, from my high school. Uh, we didn't, STEM wasn't really something that was really, um, talked about. It was very technical because a lot of the people in the community, um, go into technical fields like, um, there's mechanic, there's mechanics courses or welding and carpentry, but, um, not a lot of science in it. So it was a very difficult transition, I think, from high school to college. But, um, I really would reach out to my professors and I think that's how I became more comfortable with, um, becoming a better student and learning better, um, habits was just to go out and speak during office hours. And, things like that would help me.
[00:04:47] President William F. Tate IV: So you work on breast cancer. So if you were explaining to our audience what exactly are you studying, you know, pretend like we don't know a lot about cancer research.
[00:04:56] Alejandra Ham: Yeah.
[00:04:56] President William F. Tate IV: How would you describe to us what you're trying to accomplish in your research?
[00:05:01] Alejandra Ham: Yeah, so the fancy one, I guess would be that, um, I work on breast cancer research, of course, and see how fluid shear stress affects breast cancer cells and leads them to become, um, more metastatic and, you know, an aggressive behavior. So what does that, all that, what does that, all that, mean you know? Um, just imagine that the breast cancer cell is you in a water slide, you know? Um, fluid shear stress, we're evaluating it during the human, in the human vasculature. So imagine that the blood vessels are the water slide and the breast cancer cell is you inside the water slide.
[00:05:38] So while you're going down the water slide, you're flowing from the top of the slide to the bottom of the slide. That can be like the breast cancer cell, um, going from the breast to another part of the body, right, um, and metastasizing. While you're sliding down that slide, you feel like, you know the water's pushing onto you. That's what helps you slide from point A to point B of the slide. That is fluid shear stress. The, that force that you feel going down the water slide. So the force that the cell feels of the, you know, the blood going through the body. That is, um, what I'm researching. And I'm trying to see like, as the, as the breast cancer cell is going down this water slide that is the blood vessels, um, how does that change it and make it more aggressive and, you know, bad outcomes for the patient.
[00:06:23] President William F. Tate IV: So on that front, what have you learned from that, that experience that you've had doing this research? Are you learning any new findings we should all understand?
[00:06:31] Alejandra Ham: I have been learning how to make these microfluidic devices, um, which is basically like a little device that fits in the palm of your hand and imitates what your body goes, what the cells go through in the blood vessels, you know? And I've been learning with, um, another graduate student, um, in Dr. Melvin's lab, um, Braulio Ortega. Um, he designed the first, um, device and I've just been learning from him.
[00:06:58] President William F. Tate IV: So I don't think people really understand, when you are a new graduate student, there's a lot to learn.
[00:07:02] Alejandra Ham: Mm-hmm.
[00:07:03] President William F. Tate IV: So how, how have you adjusted, um, to the pace of graduate school versus the pace of when you were in undergrad?
[00:07:09] Alejandra Ham: It's very different. I would say right now it's a bit more calmer. I remember last semester I was taking 19 credit hours and working on my honors thesis, um, on breast cancer research still. And then my laptop died. I had to rewrite, um, my honors thesis and I had like, awards ceremonies to take while, all while, um, having to take all these courses. It's very different in graduate, um, school. I don't think it's so much as excelling, um, well it is also excelling in your courses of course, but um, the courses are not your like main thing, like how it is in undergrad. Or, it's really about the research that you do.
[00:07:44] That's your main work in learning, um, to understand what's going on with your project. I think that's like the very, the largest difference. And just having to read papers and understand the biology behind, um, the breast cancer and like the proteins in it, or, um, also understanding and reading papers about the engineering and the devices that we make that can, um, properly simulate what the cells can be going through the human body. So that's how I would say it's, um, very different.
[00:08:13] President William F. Tate IV: Now you described the differences, I'm curious, how do you see your undergraduate experience informing now what you do in grad school?
[00:08:22] Alejandra Ham: Yeah, so during undergrad, as I said, I began doing research with Dr. Martin, but I still didn't really have, like, a proper understanding of it. And, I decided to, and was accepted to, um, two different research programs that I really just give thanks that, that's what made me really hop onto research. The, um, Ronald E. McNair, um, Research Program and the Maximizing Accelerated Research, um, Careers, MARC program that's funded by the NIH, I would say that those are very pivotal in my research career and have made me the person I am today.
[00:08:53] President William F. Tate IV: Well, as an undergrad, um, you experienced, uh, a pandemic, in the COVID pandemic. How did you stay connected to doing your research, for example, or stay connected to the social life here on campus while all that was happening?
[00:09:09] Alejandra Ham: COVID, that was a very interesting time. Uh, you know, nobody was expecting it, and I hope we don't expect it again. Um, it went from, you know, celebrating Nationals and getting the day off. And, a couple months later I'm receiving an email after my microbiology class saying, oh, you've been, um, school has been canceled for a week before spring break. And back then everybody's like, yeah, like we have an, like an extended spring break, you know, more time to enjoy our break.
[00:09:38] Um, but really what we weren't expecting was a complete shutdown of society as a whole and the whole entire world, you know. And it really changed, um, everything, from having to see each other every day because humans are a very social creature, um, to just doing everything remote and virtually. Right before COVID came, I was just starting in my research lab. And I was learning how to, you know, do cell culture like I mentioned, or um, just being in the lab. But that had to change because I couldn't be in the lab anymore, right? So what I did was, um, with the help of the research programs that I mentioned, and Dr. Martin, I was able to do research, um, remotely by doing image processing of breast cancer cells and, um, tissue and the microenvironment of it all.
[00:10:29] I was just image, like, process these images and get, um, qual..., quantitative data of these images, and so much that I even got a publication under, during that time, which is, you know, quite, I think I am proud of because it's time, um, during Covid. And then as for the social aspect, I, you know, I am a very talkative person and I just knew I wanted to maintain my social aspect of, um, life. So I did that by still being, um, active in my extracurriculars.
[00:11:00] President William F. Tate IV: Well, you, you managed it pretty well. Let, now let me, let me hop on to one point. You mentioned you published a paper.
[00:11:05] Alejandra Ham: Mm-hmm.
[00:11:06] President William F. Tate IV: That's very impressive. And you, was the paper related to cancer?
[00:11:10] Alejandra Ham: Yes. It was, um, alongside, um, a research lab in Tulane. I was, um, imaging, um, like the tissue environment where the cells reside, and then seeing how, this is very sciencey, but the alignment would change sometimes depending on these, um, breast cancer cells and seeing how that alignment could be correlated to, um, more metastatic cancer, you know?
[00:11:37] President William F. Tate IV: Well, you're a published cancer researcher, and you may not know this, but as president of LSU, one of the big points of emphasis of my presidency is cancer research, biomedical research. I want us to be great at it. What would you tell others who might be interested in studying cancer, why it would be important to consider it no matter what they're studying? What, how would you sell them on getting involved in this kind of research?
[00:12:04] Alejandra Ham: I think that, um, biomedical discoveries and cancer research should really be focused on here at LSU. I think, you know, in the South it's not like California, or like the Northeast, where biomedical industries are very prominent. I, here in the south there's a lot of health disparities that are not seen in other regions of the country and doing this research can, um, help these communities. I have seen it myself as a Latina that would volunteer at hospitals.
[00:12:34] Um, and also I went to a high school that was, um, predominantly of a population of people of color. I could see from friends and other people that sometimes these, um, communities do not get the same treatment that others in other regions of the country get. And I think that it's very important to, that everybody should have like equal healthcare. And so I think that research should definitely be, um, implemented more here in the South and at LSU so that we can help out others in our community.
[00:13:07] President William F. Tate IV: Well, I love how you frame this as part of being in the South, cause I think you're exactly right. Um, the South deserves the very best and so I'm really glad you're working on this. Well, there was a recent publication that talked about, uh, science and in particular, the best and most impactful papers were the ones that included women on the research team. And I know you're part of the Society of Women in Engineering and you're obviously a published cancer researcher. Don't ever minimize that. That's very important. Talk to us a little bit about how science and, and scientists can do a better job of becoming more accessible to the general public so they might understand it and really engaging women and people of color more.
[00:13:55] Alejandra Ham: Yeah. During, um, my time at SWE, I've been able to go to two national conferences. And I feel like being there has been a great opportunity to see how scientists, have, and science has progressed, um, and been more available for women while I've been there. Um, you get to hear talks about, um, working moms, Latinas and other POC communities, and the LGBT community. And how, um, they have faced different challenges and how they've over overcome it. I think that just listening and learning and hearing other people speak about themselves and what they've done has been very empowering.
[00:14:35] I think that one of the best things you can do is just speak out, just be brave and say how your experience has been, um, so that you, others can hear your impact. And it's just like a big domino effect. And I think it's just very empowering to hear others and just share your story and don't let others bring you down once you're experiencing and living your story.
[00:15:01] President William F. Tate IV: Well, we got a few fun questions. So we talked about football a little bit. Did you storm the field for the Alabama game?
[00:15:08] Alejandra Ham: I unfortunately did not. Um, I had sprained my ankle pretty badly, um, like a few days before. And, um, my roommate and I thought it was safer if we went back home just a little bit earlier. It was the third quarter. We were winning and I just said, you know, we're going to make it safe and just leave a little bit earlier, because I knew that when we won, it was gonna be, you know, stampede of people, traffic, you know. I was just trying to beat that just for my own, um, health. But looking back, I kind of regret it. I kind of wish I would've been there for that. But you know, you live and you learn.
[00:15:44] President William F. Tate IV: Wisdom. You showed wisdom. That was good. Well, you have mastered the undergraduate experience because you finished it. What advice do you have for LSU undergraduates? What, what would you say? How do you max it out?
[00:15:57] Alejandra Ham: Um, I would say that what I would, um, do is make as many connections as you can. I think that the community here at LSU has really, um, changed me who I am as a person to become the best I can be. And if it weren't for these different research programs or my professors, I wouldn't have excelled as much as I have so far. And, um, definitely just make as many connections and, um, just have that support system for you, whether it be family and friends and all of these people. I think just keep people in your life.
[00:16:31] President William F. Tate IV: Well, we've come to the end of this and after listening, I have to say, Alejandra, that, that you represent exactly what we're trying to get done in the Scholarship First Agenda at LSU. And your journey has been one that's quite special. I hope to have many, many other students who are able to say they're published cancer researchers and making a contribution to society in the way you are. So, keep up the great work and we look forward to seeing that second publication.
[00:17:00] Alejandra Ham: Yes, of course. Thank you so much and,
[00:17:03] President William F. Tate IV: Thank you.
[00:17:03] Alejandra Ham: Geaux Tigers!
[00:17:04] President William F. Tate IV: Geaux Tigers!