Elise Fear does with a bucket of canola oil what no one else can — and it has nothing to do with cooking.
The associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering is using the common ingredient to develop a new method for early detection of breast cancer.
To take an image with Fear’s Tissue Sensing Adaptive Radar or TSAR system, the breast is submerged in canola oil while short pulses of microwaves are emitted into the oil. The reflections from the waves are processed with sophisticated algorithms to create three-dimensional images of the breast, which reveal the presence of tumours. With no X-ray radiation or need to squish the breast into a mammography machine, TSAR could be a welcome addition to detecting and treating breast cancer.
“We are trying to provide another piece to the puzzle when breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and monitoring are being pursued,” says Fear. The potential for making a significant impact in woman’s health was a major motivator in her pursuit of biomedical engineering.
“I like the idea of using engineering to help people and particularly to improve health,” says Fear, who has the winning combination of patience and sustained enthusiasm necessary for such an in-depth research project. While the potential of TSAR is enormous, the pragmatic Fear points out that medical technologies — particularly in an academic setting — can take up to 25 years to develop from idea to completion. TSAR is in year 11, with clinical trials already in progress this year. If all goes well, it will be in use by the time Fear’s other love, her three-year-old daughter Katie, graduates from high school.
“It’s been a long journey, but it is exciting every step of the way, so it keeps us energized,” says Fear of her team of seven students and researchers whom she considers essential to the project.
When she is not elbow-deep in canola oil and algorithms, Fear is teaching the fundamentals of electromagnets to undergraduate students and quietly cheering when she detects the moment the concept she is teaching clicks with her stu-dents. She also gets motivated by her graduate students whose ideas help push projects in new, sometimes unexpected, directions.
Besides creating technology that could potentially save lives and sharing her wisdom with future generations, the down-to-earth Fear says her work with canola oil also makes her much more approachable at parties.
“If I tell people I’m a professor of electrical engineering, people become a deer in the headlights,” she says. “If I say I am a biomedical researcher working on a new method to detect breast cancer, it’s a lot less scary.”
Why she’s the top: She’s developing a new method of early breast cancer detection and trying to make it as beneficial and patient-friendly as possible.
The key to her success: She says it’s the team of researchers and students she works with, but her humility comes with a heaping dose of persistence and dedication to a research project with the potential to help millions of people.