Meghan Canter’s undergraduate works ranges from BacteriaBots to the Big Event
Meghan Canter’s involvement in campus life at Virginia Tech ranges from researching tiny biological robots to volunteering with the university’s annual Big Event.
The rising senior from Forest, Va., is majoring in biological sciences in the College of Science while pursuing a minor in interdisciplinary engineering and science, an option made available through participation in the Scieneering program.
The Scieneering program is offered through the Division of Undergraduate Education and is funded by a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Grant. Through a combination of coursework and research experiences, students are exposed to interdisciplinary work combining science, engineering, and law.
Since last summer, Canter has been actively involved in the development and refinement of BacteriaBots. “It’s like a micro-scale robot,” says Canter. “We work with engineered E. coli and attach them to micron-sized particles. The bacteria provide the propulsion force to move the particles. We try to direct where we want the particles to move.”
Meghan Canter with Scieneering faculty mentor Bahareh Behkam, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering.
The small-scale robots have a range of possible uses in the fields of bio-sensing, medicine, micro-manufacturing and assembly, microelectronics, and biomaterials. One important potential use for BacteriaBots is cleaning up oil spills. “You could send the BacteriaBots into the oil spill area and direct them where to go using chemotaxis, which is a process of using chemical gradients to either attract or repel the bacteria,” Canter explains.
Canter is personally investigating how BacteriaBots could help drug delivery to tumors. Recent research shows that Salmonella typhimurium may be a useful bacterial agent. “Tumors have blood vessels on the outside. As of now, that is how drugs are delivered to tumors. But it is hard to infiltrate the tumor itself,” says Canter. “If we can direct the bacteria into the tumor carrying the drugs, however, it could degrade from the inside out.”
True to the interdisciplinary vision of the Scieneering program, Canter works with faculty mentors from different fields of study. She works with Birgit Scharf, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science, to synthesize molecules that allow bacteria to communicate with each other.
Canter takes the molecules to the MicroN BASE laboratory run by Bahareh Behkam, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering, to video the bacteria in the presence of these communication molecules. They use an inverted microscope coupled with a video camera, tracking software, and microfluidic devices to run experiments with the bacteria in in vitro microenvironments. In addition, Behkam’s lab fabricates the particles the bacteria attaches to – creating the micro-robots.
“When you research, you learn how to be analytical, problem solve, and think for yourself,” says Canter. “You learn things in class, but it is different when you actually get to do it.”
Canter values getting to know faculty members and learning more about the university. “As students, we may be unaware of the cool things going on across campus,” she says. “For example, during football games, you may see the ad that has a horse running on a treadmill. Chances are, students don’t know where that is happening within the university community or what they are studying. When you do undergraduate research, though, you hear about these things and it makes science come to life.”
Outside of class and research, Canter finds time to give back to the community. She has participated in the Big Event for the past two years, serving as marketing executive co-director last year. She will serve as a student outreach representative for the coming year. Students donate a day of service to give back to the surrounding community. “In college, it’s easy to get in this idealistic mindset that you are going to save the world,” says Canter. “But it’s cool to start with where you are and help those around you.”
As she approaches her final year of undergraduate study, Canter is thankful she became a Hokie three years ago. “The only college I applied to in high school was Virginia Tech,” she says. “I visit friends and their schools are great, but Virginia Tech is the best. It’s a big school with a small-town feel and the Hokie Spirit.”