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Commencement 2007: Student-Athlete Aims To Tackle Medical Challenges

Thu, 2007-05-03 10:31 -- Anonymous

May 3, 2007

Troy, N.Y. — No one can say Abigail Eldridge wasted any time during her four years at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 

Along with conducting cutting-edge bioengineering and nanotechnology research, she served in Rensselaer’s student government, played on three varsity sports teams, and loaded up on extra classes. She also managed to sneak in a pair of internships, including one at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute.

“I like being busy,” Eldridge said with a smile. “If I’m not busy, I don’t feel productive.”

But the senior biomedical engineering major does plan to take a break from her studies and activities on May 19 to participate in Rensselaer’s 201st Commencement ceremony.

Eldridge hails from Northfield, Mass., a small town of less than 3,000 people — about one-third the population of Rensselaer’s Troy, N.Y., campus. Her research, however, aims to tackle truly global challenges. 

Throughout her senior year, Eldridge has been a key contributor to an ongoing project at Rensselaer to investigate ways of expediting the regeneration of damaged nervous system cells. The research team is examining how tiny engineered scaffolds and different combinations of stimuli can promote cell re-growth and help damaged cells reconnect with muscles, sensory receptors, and other targets in the body.

If a favorable combination is identified, a small matrix could be implanted in an injury site to help recreate precise microenvironments that encourage healing and regeneration. A breakthrough could lead to significant advancements for treating spinal cord injuries.

Eldridge took her first biomedical engineering class as a sophomore, and by the end of that year she decided to major — and pursue a career — in the field. She is particularly interested in furthering her exploration of nanotechnology’s role and continued impact on bioengineering, but said it’s still too early to decide on a specific concentration.

“I’d like to go into something where I could draw on all my experiences and studies,” Eldridge said, noting that she’s currently applying to several graduate schools. “I really just like trying to figure things out.”

Her faculty adviser and leader of the nervous system cell re-growth project, Deanna M. Thompson, an assistant professor in Rensselaer’s School of Engineering, is confident of Eldridge’s continued success.

“Abby is an enthusiastic and highly motivated student and I expect that she will continue to impress us with many diverse sets of accomplishments as she embarks on her newest goal, graduate school, to pursue her doctorate,” Thompson said. 

Eldridge also was involved in a project to demonstrate better, more effective bioartificial kidneys, which incorporate a patient’s own kidney cells and help filter waste out of the bloodstream. Last year she spent eight months in Ohio at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute, as part of Rensselaer’s Cooperative Education Program. 

The opportunity, part internship and part academic exchange program, afforded Eldridge hands-on lab experience as well as the chance to see the project through to peer-reviewed publication, she said. The resulting paper is currently under review by the American Journal of Physiology - Renal Physiology

Eldridge’s role in the project was chemically modifying the nanoengineered surface of a bioartificial kidney to more efficiently repel blood and attract nutrient-absorbing renal cells. Scientists anticipate implantable bioartificial kidneys will one day be a long-term solution more effective and less disabling than dialysis for millions of kidney failure patients. 

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, and Eldridge will return to the Cleveland Clinic this summer to work on a similar project to improve the design of a bioartificial pancreas. 

When not conducting research, Eldridge has been deeply involved in Rensselaer’s campus community. 

As a junior she sat on the Rensselaer Union Executive Board, which is responsible for distributing the student government’s $8.5 million budget to different school clubs, services, and athletic teams. Eldridge served as chair of the Union’s Athletic Board and oversaw funding of Rensselaer’s 23 Division I and Division III teams.

The insight to hold such an important position was undoubtedly gained firsthand. Eldridge played on Rensselaer’s varsity soccer team her freshman and sophomore years. She also played varsity softball for three years, but had to give it up as a junior after a shoulder injury.

“It’s OK — because of that I was able to pick up extra research,” she said.

Eldridge was also a member of the RPI Alpine Ski Racing Team for four years, functioning as coach and holding different positions including vice-president, treasurer, and secretary. During her senior year she also played intramural hockey and softball.

In April, Eldridge was inducted into Rensselaer’s Phalanx honor society. The school’s highest honor society, Phalanx members are nominated by their peers for excellence in leadership, service, and devotion to their alma mater.

Despite her long list of accomplishments and awards, Eldridge remains humble and stresses she was simply taking advantage of all the different ways to get involved at Rensselaer.

 “I think it makes you a well-rounded person,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed my experience here.”

Contact: Michael Mullaney
Phone: (518) 276-6161
E-mail: mullam@rpi.edu