Chris Peter '23, Assistant Director of the STEM Learning Lab and Biomedical Engineering & Biotechnology MS graduate is driven by passion and purpose.
"I'm on a mission: Cure Crohn's disease or die trying. Everyone needs a hobby, right?" quips Chris Peter, Assistant Director of the STEM Learning Lab and Biomedical Engineering & Biotechnology MS graduate.
Chris is a fixture of the UMass Dartmouth campus community, most often accompanied by Gracie, the "Lab Lab" and certified therapy dog. This May, she will graduate with a master's degree in biomedical engineering and biotechnology, the culmination of a thirteen-year journey. Chris holds a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in technical writing; she was working at UMassD as an English instructor when she decided to go back to school to study biochemistry. This major career shift was inspired by her own health struggles and those of her son.
From English major to bioengineer
"I have struggled with health issues all my life. I was a sick child and missed a lot of school. Still, I was an avid reader; reading gave me an escape and helped me deal with the pain I was experiencing. I was an English major at UMassD (then Southeastern Massachusetts University) and got my master's degree in technical writing, which exposed me to the world of science and engineering."
At 33, Chris was diagnosed with celiac disease, bringing a measure of relief to a lifetime of unexplained illness. When one of her sons was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, Chris made a life-changing decision. "I love the way engineers think. Engineering is all about problem solving, and my son has a big problem. I went to Tracie Ferreira's office and told her I wanted to do research to help cure this disease. She was encouraging and supportive; I left her office euphoric. From there, I started working on a bachelor's degree in biochemistry, and later a master's in biomedical engineering.
"I worked in Catherine Neto's lab; the Neto Lab investigates the bioactivity of phytochemicals in cranberries. My research focuses on the antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties of cranberries with the hope that the nutritional information can be used to alleviate the symptoms of Crohn's disease," Chris explains. "I hope to build on this research using biomedical engineering methods to develop translational medicine solutions for Crohn's patients."
Chris emphasizes the emotional and academic support she received along the way: "I couldn't have done this without the support and mentorship of Dr. Ferreira and Dr. Neto."
In the STEM Learning Lab, students make the best teachers
In addition to her life as a researcher and a student, Chris helps run the STEM Learning Lab, an academic resource center for students in STEM fields, with a special focus on students from underrepresented populations.
"When I went back to school for science, I had to learn a lot of new skills. I was never a math mind, but I had to get good at math. I relate to the students who come to the Lab because I've been where they are. I especially love helping first-generation, low-income students because I was once one myself. Their journeys resonate with me, I lived that journey."
John Fernandes, Director and Founder of the STEM Learning Lab, echoes that sentiment: "People think they need to be no less than perfect in order to be a tutor. But the best tutors are the ones who know what it’s like to struggle."
The magic of Gracie
At the STEM Learning Lab, undergraduate and graduate students can access tutoring, supplemental instruction, workshops, and appointments with therapy dog Gracie.
“The stress students are under is so high and so untended to; that’s why Gracie is here. That’s the magic she performs daily. Students become more relaxed around her, and they often open up about what they're struggling with in a way they might not to a professor or advisor. Then we can address those issues.
"Gracie will be at my side as I cross the commencement stage, and yes, she will have regalia."
"Now, in addition to my role in the STEM Learning Lab, my goal is to keep raising awareness about Crohn's disease and continue my research. I want to advance myself so I can provide a roadmap for others and help students find meaningful purpose in their research. Never forget there are real people suffering daily from these diseases.
"I love that we're an R2 research institution. It connects with my mission to create confident, enthusiastic scholars and researchers to cure diseases and solve other problems facing humanity. Science is all about the contributions you make; I want to continue to make those contributions."