Graduate Student Spotlight: Hannah O'Toole

Ph.D. Student, Department of Biomedical Engineering/BMEGG

Portrait of Hannah OToole in a lab environment wearing lab coat and other PPE

This spotlight is a part of our 2023 International Women's Day Feature.

What inspired you to study engineering? Describe your path to graduate studies at UC Davis. 

I was inspired to study engineering by my high school calculus teacher, who recognized my knack for problem-solving and suggested I look into the field when applying to colleges. I was also very interested in medicine and pharmacology, which led me to apply for biomedical engineering (BME) programs to get a blend of the engineering mindset with the medical aspects and applications. I did my undergraduate degree here at UC Davis in BME and started working in the Carney Lab in my junior year. I met Dr. Carney at the BME Make-a-Thon, and he has continued to be my mentor through my graduate studies. I decided to come to graduate school to continue my research pursuits with the goal of staying in academia. Over the course of my time at UC Davis, I have not only had the pleasure of taking advantage of the research facilities to pursue my research goals, but also to learn about and work on STEM education and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts (especially within engineering). 

Highlight your current research. What do you love about it, why are you excited, and how do you stay motivated? 

I am currently working on engineering nanoscale chemical sensors that can detect "cancer odor" from breath. These sensors trap chemical components of breath that are associated with cancer. A special type of light scattering called Raman scattering is subsequently used to read out which chemicals are trapped. Each chemical has a unique Raman spectral "fingerprint," and we can deconvolve a mixture of chemicals to tell us if the samples detect cancer-related compounds. My research is multifaceted, allowing me to stay curious and continually ask questions to make progress. The nature of the biomedical engineering field enables me to learn about many different interesting and potentially life-changing research topics, and I am inspired and motivated by my fellow graduate students to keep pushing the envelope in science. I also love the mentorship aspect of graduate school. It drives me to practice good research habits knowing that I am a model for the students I mentor and that the research I produce can be helpful to society. 

The 2023 International Women's Day theme is #EmbraceEquity. How do you embrace equity in the engineering field? 

I embrace equity in the engineering field by constantly keeping in mind how we make engineering education accessible, equitable and inclusive for our future and current students. I have actively tried to be a role model for other female engineers to pursue research, including my undergraduate mentee, Anna. In June 2022, I had the opportunity to travel to Germany to attend a special conference for women in my field of photonics. It was very inspiring for me to see other women so passionate about our niche. I actively promote DEI efforts in our BME department as the president of our graduate student association, BESA, and as the graduate subcommittee chair of the BME Health, Equity and Wellness (HEW) Committee. The HEW formed in 2020 as a grassroots movement to promote diversity, equity, inclusion and mental and physical health within our department. Thus far, we have put on several workshops, a seminar series and numerous events to create a safe and inclusive community to embrace equity within our department. 

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