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E-news Online April 2011

Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. Candidate Overcomes Cancer and Is Now Researching a Cure

By Liz Jones

Photo by Tom Cogill
Kelly Klanian

Harbingers of spring — daffodils, dogwoods, butterflies — how eagerly we await them! But when Kelly Klanian saw a butterfly alight on a flower outside her window, it had a message for her beyond the coming of spring.

It was May 2003, and Klanian, a third-year U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science student, was battling ovarian cancer. “That butterfly was a simple reminder of how precious and fleeting life can be,” Klanian recalls.

Months later, her doctors declared her cancer-free, and in 2003 Klanian graduated from the Engineering School with a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering.

But the butterfly’s message stayed with her. Eventually Klanian took a job as an acoustics engineer for Northrop Grumman Shipyard in Newport News, Va. “I enjoyed my time there, but I felt there was something missing.” That something, she discovered, was a passion for helping sick people.

While on a mission trip to Nicaragua two summers ago, Klanian realized she wanted to use engineering to aid the sick and suffering. “I felt sad that the women and children I was befriending in Nicaragua would never have the opportunities to learn and grow as I did. I decided then that I wanted to learn new things and give back to others in the process.”

Now Klanian is back at U.Va., pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. One of the new things she’s learning as a research assistant is a novel approach to aid in the detection of breast cancer. Her lab is conducting trials to evaluate the effectiveness of dual modality tomosynthesis, a type of imagery that makes localized tumors easier to identify.

As for Klanian’s desire to “give back,” the commitment and support she has received from the Engineering School faculty has provided an excellent model for her. “They were like a family to me while I was going through my cancer treatment. It was a difficult time.”

One professor in particular, John Thacker, stood out. He encouraged Klanian to think outside the box with her fourth-year thesis. That she did. Instead of a mechanical engineering thesis, Klanian wrote about ovarian cancer and created educational materials for patients.

 Because of her experience with cancer, Klanian believes she’s now a better researcher. “I’m not just a researcher; I’m not just an engineer. I’m a cancer survivor,” she says. “That makes it easier to establish a dialogue with our patients.” Through such a dialogue, Klanian hopes she may be able to instill a sense of peace in the hearts of others who are facing terminal illness.

The butterfly continues to inspire hope in Klanian as she faces new struggles and challenges. How does she plan to carry that message into the future as a medical researcher? “On my refrigerator I have a bucket list — things I would like to accomplish before I die, or ‘kick the bucket.’” The first thing on her list is “cure cancer.”

Far-fetched? Maybe. Impossible? Klanian doesn’t think so.

“If some researcher years ago had not tried something new and different in treating ovarian cancer,” she says, “I would have no future in front of me now.”