Feature Stories 2024: Olivia Collins: Developing a laser light technique to detect early cancer

Honors Bioengineering major
Feature Stories 2024: Olivia Collins: Developing a laser light technique to detect early cancer
Olivia Collins: Developing a laser light technique to detect early cancer

In memory of her mom, Honors bioengineering major hopes her research will contribute to the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer

Honors College bioengineering major Olivia Collins '24 is conducting cutting-edge research with a purpose very close to her heart. After losing her mother to cancer at age 5, she is working with Associate Professor of Bioengineering Milana Vasudev to establish a method to detect early ovarian cancer in a single drop of blood.  

Collins received a 2024 National Science Foundation ACCOMPLISH S-STEM Scholar Award offered by UMass Dartmouth and was selected to attend the annual awards ceremony in Chicago this fall. She also received the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) Award for her work in 2022.  

Enrolled in the accelerated BS/MS bioengineering program, Collins is currently finishing her undergraduate degree while beginning the first year of her master's degree. This independent research serves as her engineering capstone project and, with an added research component, her Honors APEX Project. 

UMassD community 

 Why did you choose to attend UMass Dartmouth? 

"I wanted to stay somewhere local so I could commute to class and waitress at the restaurant I've been at for years, The Back Eddy in Westport. I was also drawn to the bioengineering program because it offered classes and research opportunities that aligned with my specific interests."

 Why did you decide to major in bioengineering? 

"I've been in love with math and biology my entire life. I knew I wanted to do cancer research.  

"When I was a freshman in high school, I learned about biotechnology for the first time, specifically CRISPR, a gene editing technology. I was blown away by the thought that biology can be manipulated in such innovative ways to create treatments and cures for various diseases. I instantly knew that I wanted to do something that is both cutting-edge and has the potential to save lives.  

"When I was applying to colleges, I found that bioengineering was the perfect intersection of all my interests: math, science, and creating novel solutions to the medical world's most pressing issues. I've learned about biology in a whole different light." 

 What do you think makes UMassD special? 

"I think the close-knit community at UMassD is what makes it so special. Coming here as a freshman was daunting but, from day one, I felt like I belonged. 

"In my bioengineering program, everyone is so welcoming and kind and, over the years, I feel like I’ve become part of a community where we all genuinely care about each other and want to see everyone succeed." 

How has your experience been as a bioengineering major? 

"There are only 13 seniors in the program, and I love everyone I have classes with. We have 7 professors and they're all great. [Assoc. Prof.] Tracie Ferreira is very involved with students. She's very personable and she helps us with anything."  

Do you enjoy commuting? 

"I love that I chose to go somewhere close to my house. It's so nice being able to spend the day here and then go home to have a change of environment.  

"Keeping school and my outside life separate has been very beneficial for me since it allows me to step back and disconnect to maintain school/life balance." 

What is your favorite spot on campus and why? 

"My favorite spot on campus is the bioengineering lounge because it's where everyone goes between classes. It's also right near the bioengineering faculty offices so my professors are always walking by and sitting down to chat with students. It's a great place to do homework because there are always other students around to talk to and ask for help/offer help if needed."

SEM image showing peptide nanotubes
An SEM image showing peptide nanotubes. This grass-like structure provides a surface for the nanoparticles to attach to form a uniform monolayer to elicit the plasmonic interactions necessary to elicit a SERS enhancement.


Can you tell us about your research project and the title? 

"Characterizing Ovarian Cancer Exosomes with SERS. 

"I am doing a combined bioengineering capstone/APEX project. In my capstone, I am leading a team with 3 other seniors. The overall goal is to create a liquid biopsy device capable of rapid detection of ovarian cancer from blood samples utilizing surfaced-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) or laser light. The sensor will be able to detect ovarian cancer-specific exosomes in the blood by cross-referencing their unique Raman signatures with an AI-integrated database containing a multitude of other exosomal Raman signatures.  

"A Raman signature is like a chemical fingerprint that results from the interaction of laser light with matter. SERS is utilized to amplify this signal to create a well-defined signature. 

"My capstone team was tasked with obtaining the first ovarian cancer exosome signatures to begin creating this database. We are also culturing ovarian cancer cells and extracting exosomes to test on our sensor to obtain their Raman signatures.  

"For my solo Honors portion of the project, I am conducting the Raman control testing of a few different target molecules with well-defined Raman signatures with our SERS sensors. The purpose of this testing is to evaluate the efficiency of our sensors before conducting the experimental testing of exosomes."  

Why did you choose this research topic? 

"When I was five years old, my mother passed away from breast cancer. Having been so young, I've lived almost my whole life contemplating why she had to die. I’ve always felt that there is so much more that can be done in the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer, and I always knew it was my purpose in life to contribute to this cause for her. 

"This project is centered around exosomes, which are tiny extracellular signaling vesicles that are constantly circulating through the blood. Every single cell in the body releases their own exosomes with unique surface proteins that serve as an 'ID card' within the body. Cancerous exosomes display their own unique surface proteins that can be potentially detected and characterized by this liquid biopsy device. 

"Therefore, analyzing a mere droplet of blood holds the potential to detect cancerous cells at the very moment they begin to manifest. I find this absolutely groundbreaking, so pursuing this project has given me hope that the research I’m doing has the potential to revolutionize early cancer diagnostics, so no little girl will have to grow up without a mother at the hands of cancer like I did."  

Have you learned/discovered anything interesting? 

"Since the components of the sensor are all on the nanoscale, to view how our structures form and interact we use scanning electron microscopy (SEM). It's been fascinating to look at a tiny sensor and see nothing, but under an electron microscope, it's like a whole other world with incredibly complex and dynamic structures." 

Has this research experience impacted your career goals or future plans? 

"This research experience has solidified my dream of working in early cancer diagnostics, specifically in the realm of liquid biopsy devices. I am absolutely fascinated by this kind of research and I’m so excited that my project could produce pioneering data for exosome-based cancer detection.  

"This research has also motivated me to pursue my master's degree here at UMassD so I can do my thesis on this project. I can't wait to see how the project advances!"

Honors College experience 

What have you enjoyed about being in the Honors College? 

"I've enjoyed having extra resources and a small community to reach out to. Being in the Honors College, I always knew that if I had any issues, I would have a support system where I could express my concerns. My advisor was always helpful, especially early on when I had questions about scheduling and credits."

How do you feel the Honors College has benefitted you? 

"Some of the Honors level classes I've taken require research papers that allowed me to delve even deeper into a lot of different bioengineering topics."

Future plans 

What are your plans following graduation? 

"Following graduation, I’ll come back here for my master's degree, and then I plan to get a job in the liquid biopsy industry. I see myself doing research for a few years, then potentially going into sales engineering or maybe even management roles.” 

What advice would you share with future Corsairs? 

"I would say never stop trying to find your true passion and chase after it. Seize the uncertainty and the unconventional routes because they often lead to the most fulfilling destinations."