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Spotlight On: Stacey Finley, Chemical and Biological Engineering Alumna and Gabilan Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC)

Modified: March 3, 2015
Stacey Finley in Northwestern Regalia

Stacey Finley knew she was interested in science from an early age. “I did science projects with my dad,” she said, “and I enjoyed asking questions about the things I was seeing around me every day, so I did small experiments to try to answer those questions.” As a PhD alumna of Northwestern’s Chemical and Biological Engineering program, and now as the Gabilan Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC), Stacey is still asking questions about the world around her. Now, however, she has more sophisticated tools at her disposal to answer them.

“I work on developing mathematical models of a process called angiogenesis, which is the formation of new blood vessels from preexisting vessels,” she explained. “There are blood vessels that are already present in a tissue, and angiogenesis is the process by which new vessels are sprouting off that original vessel. This process is important to tumor growth, so we’re developing mathematical models to study what happens when you inhibit tumor angiogenesis.”

Stacey has always loved science, but it wasn’t until she was applying to college that she decided to pursue engineering. “In high school, I was interested in science and it was also something I excelled at,” she said, “and I wanted to combine my interests with things that I was good at. I did some research, talking to different people and trying to figure out how I could combine math, physics, and chemistry into a career; that’s how I came up with chemical engineering.”

Stacey pursued her interest in chemical engineering at Florida A&M University, an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). She describes the environment there as “empowering.”

“I saw people who looked like me – students, faculty, and staff – who were successful and excelling in their careers, and this increased my self-esteem and confidence,” she said, adding that the experience “showed me that I could do what I set out to do.” Stacey ultimately decided to get a PhD in chemical engineering after several summer internships with Proctor and Gamble convinced her that academia, not industry, was in line with her career goals.

“I was wearing hard hats and steel-toed shoes and working on different processes, like bar soap making,” she said about the internships. “It was less about engineering new solutions to problems and more about managing people.”

The contrast between her experience in industry and her senior honors research thesis – developing a mathematical model to study reaction and diffusion goldfish skeletal muscles – was what convinced Stacey to pursue a PhD.

“The honors thesis allowed me to use the fundamental chemical engineering concepts that I was learning in class and apply them to a biological system,” she said. “My experiences having an internship and doing research allowed me to see that I was more interested in research. I decided to pursue it as a long-term career goal.”

Stacey’s undergraduate experience using mathematical modeling is one of the factors that led her to Northwestern. “Northwestern wasn’t initially on the list of schools I was interested in,” she says. She started looking into Northwestern after meeting a TGS representative at a graduate school fair. “He was talking about the University, the McCormick School of Engineering, and the exciting research that was going on there. I decided to apply.”

Stacey put her computational background to good use working with professors Linda Broadbelt and Vassily Hatzimanikatis. Her graduate research focused on developing computational tools to predict chemical and biological reactions.

“In my research, I was using this tool, called BNICE, to predict novel pathways that could be used to degrade toxic compounds. It had a lot of applications in environmental engineering, where we wanted to identify different toxic pollutants that were in the environment and use this tool to predict the biochemical reactions that could degrade the toxic compounds in something more benign.” Stacey ultimately ended up applying her computational and mathematical modeling experience to biomedical science, first as a postdoctoral Fellow at Johns Hopkins and now in her research on tumor angiogenesis at USC.

Engineering and mathematical modeling weren’t the only experience that Stacey gained during her time at Northwestern. She also got involved in the community as the president of Northwestern’s Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) and as a recruiting representative for TGS.

“During my first year as a PhD student, I got involved with the BGSA and wanted to contribute more to the direction of the organization, so I eventually became the president,” she said. “In that role, I got to meet a lot of other students and develop different programming that would support them and allow them to be successful as they were going through their PhDs.”

One BGSA program that Stacey singled out was the annual graduate research symposium, which had been going on for several years before she came to Northwestern. “It was a chance to develop communication skills and meet other students from around and outside the University.  We also invited graduate students from the area,” she said. “My involvement with the BGSA allowed me to connect with another group of students outside of the students that I was working with in my research lab.”

In her recruiting work for TGS, Stacey wanted to increase the representation of women and underrepresented minority students in the STEM fields. “Students need to have role models with whom they can identify and who understand the issues they have been experiencing. That has been one of my goals as a graduate student, a postdoc, and a professor: to encourage students from underrepresented groups who are pursuing PhDs, especially in science and engineering, to continue on.”

Her experience as both a mentor and mentee have stressed the importance of mentoring to Stacey. “A professor has a lot of different roles,” she says. “One of them, of course, is research, but another is mentoring. I’ve had a lot of great mentors throughout undergrad, graduate school, and postdoc training, and I want to have that same impact on students who are working in my research lab and who I see on campus. Having good mentors has been important to me, and I hope I can be a good mentor to others.”

When asked if she could go back in time and give herself advice, she says, “I would encourage [young Stacey] to continue to pursue her interests, and find a career where her interests are aligned with the things that she’s good at. Every day, you go into a job, and while you want to enjoy what you’re doing, you also want to make an impact. I think by having a career where you’re doing things that you’re good at, that you enjoy, and that inspire you and inspire others, that’s how you really make an impact.”