Elizabeth Lillie: Science and Soccer

Sept. 13, 2011

by Chris Weinman | Subscribe to the Commodore Nation


Class. Practice. Lab. Game.

Going back and forth from academics to athletics can be quite a grind for the normal student-athlete.

Microfluidic device. Offside trap. Thick tissue bioreactor. Corner kick.

Going back and forth from biomechanical engineering to major college soccer adds an extra dimension to that student-athlete experience, but Elizabeth Lillie has made it work quite nicely during her career at Vanderbilt. Entering her senior season, Lillie had started 19 career games while earning academic honors from the Southeastern Conference in each of her first three seasons.

LillieOn top of normal course work and team activities, Lillie has been involved with an in-depth research project as part of the Vanderbilt Institute for Integrative Biosystems Research and Education's SyBBURE program. SyBBURE (pronounced "cyber"), which stands for Systems Biology and Bioengineering Undergraduate Research Experience, provides undergraduate students with mentored experiences in advanced scientific investigation with some of the university's leading research and teaching faculty.

Lillie has spent the past three years working in a lab for VIIBRE faculty Lisa McCawley and Dmitry Markov. The project is attempting to further enhance the individualization of breast cancer treatment.

"That's the way medicine is going now, especially for cancer. They are starting to find that so many carcinogens are personalized," Lillie said. "If you can individualize your treatment, the person has a much better response. The goal is to be able to take a biopsy of a tumor and put it in our device with this different oxygen grading--because they use oxygen treatment to treat cancer right now. And based on the retardation of growth within our reactor we can tell which concentration of oxygen that person would need to target their specific cancer."

Lillie estimates that she has put in more than 1,500 hours at the lab--most of those during the summer months. She juggled 7 a.m. workouts and 4 p.m. rehab appointments to log more than 400 hours from May to August. While she is one of the few students in the program who has worked for all four years on a single project, that is a source of pride for Lillie.

"[My project] moves more slowly than most, so I've gotten the most out of it by doing it long-term," Lillie said. "Plus, I have much better cell-culture habits than the typical person. When things go wrong, I know how to fix it. You don't get those skills in just one summer."

Breast cancer hits close to home for the Rochester, Mich., native. Lillie's grandmother battled the disease, a fact that makes the work she's doing feel "really important."

This fall, Lillie will have another opportunity to further the fight against breast cancer, this time by coming to the soccer stadium instead of being pulled away from it. On Friday, Oct. 7, Vanderbilt will play host to LSU for the school's annual "Power in Pink" game. The Commodores will don pink uniforms on a night designated to raise awareness for breast cancer as part of a national initiative sponsored by Under Armour.

Lillie plans to attend graduate school following her Vanderbilt Commencement this coming May, where she is considering shifting her focus from cell culture to medical instrumentation. Whatever path she chooses, it's clear that Lillie has all the tools necessary to tackle important issues. She can even slide tackle them, if necessary.

Soccer Seniors
Lillie with fellow seniors Candace West, Emily Grant and Bridget Lohmuller.



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