Logo: University of Southern California

Counting Toward a Cancer Cure

Dr. Stacey Finley’s research is all about computation. But she can’t calculate the impact she’ll have on students.
By: Rosalie Murphy
October 11, 2013 —
Stacey Finley

Stacey Finley’s path to becoming the new Gabilan Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at USC Viterbi might best be described as a series of equations.

"Since middle school, I’ve been interested in science, doing my own experiments to understand how things worked,” said Finley, who joined the faculty this summer and will teach her first course in spring 2014. “Engineering was an analytical decision. I had this equation – what am I good at, what am I interested in, and how do those things fit together?”

Finley studied chemical engineering at Florida A&M University, then earned her Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 2009. After four years as a postdoc at Johns Hopkins University, Finley will launch USC Viterbi’s new research focus on systems cellular and molecular bioengineering. She studies angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels, and how those vessels carry oxygen and nutrients to cancer cells.
Her focus is a protein called VEGF, “vascular endothelial growth factor,” which promotes angiogenesis. Many cancer therapies target VEGF because, once cancer can express the protein, it can obtain the oxygen it needs to grow, metabolize and create more cells.

Finley doesn’t perform experiments on tumors, though. Instead, she transforms all the reactions in the VEGF signaling pathways into equations and solves them mathematically.

"These are really complex biological processes. “Angiogenesis involves multiple cell types and signaling pathways, and it is nearly impossible to understand if one focuses on isolated pathways.” Finley said. "Taking a computational approach allows us to integrate these systems, to take a more global view."

Cancer therapies are exactly the kind of real-world applications of chemical and biological engineering Finley sought when she began her research career. In her last summer of undergrad, she wore a hardhat and steel-toed boots in a Procter & Gamble manufacturing plant as a process-engineering intern by day and a researcher who studied energy utilization in goldfish skeletal muscles by night. That’s when she knew she wanted to define her own work in the area of biological research – the nighttime option – rather than work in industry.

And unique work, said department chair Norberto Grzywacz, was precisely what she did.

"Her work is different from all of us. None of us do what she does," Grzywacz said. “The strategic vision of the department calls for increasing strength in research of cellular and molecular bioengineering aspects of complex and important biomedical systems. She is the first of a cluster of hires in this new area of research.”

But although her work was so different from what the department specialized in, when Finley visited USC Viterbi to present her research, “Her clarity was so amazing that we understood right away both what she was talking about and why her work was important,” he added. “We felt that she could easily integrate into our department and lead the way in our new direction. She really wowed us. It was unanimous almost immediately."

Finley said she had great mentors along the way who supported her work. She hopes to provide the same kind of familiar face to USC Viterbi students.

“Other minority students will be looking to me to see what’s possible. I’m still wrapping my head around it,” Finely said. “It’s amazing to be here, to do the research and mentor the students and be a face on campus that the students can look to.”