Julie Hens, Ph.D.
Department of Biology, St. Bonaventure
By Andrea Westerlund, ’10
On any given day, Dr. Julie Hens can be found in the Walsh cellular biology lab, wearing her signature frog-print lab coat, mentoring students on mammary gland physiology.
Even though October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, this disease is in the forefront of Hens’ mind a majority of the year. Undergraduate students in tow, the St. Bonaventure assistant professor of biology performs cell cultures, histology sections, and micro-dissections to try and discover what effect the absence of certain proteins may have on breast cancer and mammary gland development using mice as her model organism.
Some of these terms may be confusing to non-biologists but the results of Hens’ research are easy to understand. “[This research] will help characterize the kind of breast cancer because breast cancer has all kinds of reasons for forming,” says Hens. She also states that being able to correctly identify the type of breast cancer will make it easier to assign an appropriate treatment for it, which will increase efficiency of treatment.
The mice that provide the basis of Hens’ research are what Hens describes as “knock-out mice.” These mice don’t possess the proteins that Hens and her students are studying, such as cadherin-11 or CTGF. This allows for her to research the effect that the absence of these proteins has on mammary gland development.
Although Hens enjoys working with undergraduate students, she admits that some adjustments must be made. “[The research] takes a lot longer because everyone is taking classes so they only have a certain amount of time,” she said.
She is trying to create an environment that allows for students to learn from one another. She tries not to enlist all new students at once, allowing the more seasoned students to aid the newcomers. This semester, Hens is teaching “Genetics” and “Junior Seminar.” In the spring, her course load will include “Developmental Biology” and “Molecular Cell Biology.”
Presently, Hens is working to receive outside funding to expand her research opportunities. This year she is expecting to receive a confocal microscope, which will allow for much more precise observation. The microscope costs close to half a million dollars but will allow students to view live tissue. “You can take tissue and watch things move around in there,” Hens describes excitedly.
It is clear, even to an audience whose interest in science may end with the Discovery Channel, that Hens’ research is not only exciting but useful. Right on the St. Bonaventure campus there is thrilling research taking place, with the help of undergraduate students, which may change the approach that physicians take toward treating breast cancer.