Ellerbe Aims to Capture 3D Dynamics in Single Cells

Audrey EllerbeeFor most doctoral students, the path forward is clear: industry research career or academic research and teaching career. But Audrey Ellerbee, originally from New York, is considering a different path. And that’s not at all unusual for her.

Ellerbee earned her B.S.E. in electrical engineering from Princeton in 2001. She competed on Princeton’s rugby team, and held local and regional leadership roles with the National Society of Black Engineers.

After her undergraduate work, Ellerbee was accepted to Duke’s graduate program in biomedical engineering, but her wanderlust became too strong to ignore. “I knew, partly from my Dad’s constant reminding, that I really needed to go to graduate school to be marketable, but I couldn’t just jump into more studying right then,” she explained.

So she deferred graduate school for a year and instead spent a year in Singapore teaching computer science at a polytechnic.

“Singapore essentially turned into a 1st world country overnight, and one of the things that really impressed me about the culture there is that everyone is bilingual. Most people speak English as well as their native language, whether that is Malay, Tamil, or Mandarin,” she said. “That really inspires me. After living in Singapore I decided that I want my future children to be bilingual.”

In Singapore, Ellerbee worked with 16 to 21 year olds, which was a little intimidating because some of them were older than her. Ellerbee was 20 then. “Still, I was able to teach in English for very good pay and had a lot of opportunity to travel,” she said. “The job just seemed tailor made for me. I think maybe it was part of some ‘higher plan’ to get me the life experience I needed then.”

“One of my goals was to fill the pages of my passport with stamps from different countries,” she said. “By the time I left Singapore, I actually had to have more pages put into my passport! It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

In addition to engineering, Ellerbee has studied French and Spanish and now plans to study German. “Everyone in my immediate family has moved to places where they are learning second languages and to be honest, I’m a bit envious.”

Ellerbee’s brother, a mechanical engineer from Princeton, teaches English to primary school children in Japan, and her parents now live and work in Switzerland. Ellerbee made herself a promise to travel abroad at least once a year if she can.

After an inspiring adventure, Ellerbee finally came to Duke ready to work. But she quickly found ways to reach out and delve into other cultures when not in classes or the laboratory. The athlete-turned-dancer stoked the passion for salsa she had developed while in Singapore by joining ¡Sabrosura!, Duke’s Latin dance troupe. She also volunteers for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program through the Duke Law School. “I do taxes for low incomes families in Durham, a population that includes many Hispanic families,” said Ellerbee. “Both of these activities give me ample opportunity to practice my Spanish. I didn’t know any Spanish before I came to Duke, so I started with Spanish 1 and followed the undergraduate sequence. One of the things I love about Duke is having access to such classes.”

Ellerbee’s graduate research is focused on an optical imaging technique called optical coherence tomography (OCT). She called OCT an optical analog to ultrasound. “Instead of using sound to generate images, we use light,” she said.

The technique works by illuminating biological samples with infrared light and using principles of interferometry to build a cross-sectional image based on the intensity and time-of-flight of the light that is reflected back. While OCT has been widely adopted for clinical use, particularly in ophthalmology, Audrey’s work pioneers use of a functional derivative of OCT – spectral domain phase microscopy (SDPM). “SDPM is a non-invasive, non-contact optical tool that allow us to make sensitive measurements of cell dynamics with sub-nanometer resolution,” said Ellerbee.

The goal of her research is to be able to capture real-time 3-dimensional images of dynamic processes in individual cells. Visualizing such processes is the first step to being able to understand them, and Ellerbee hopes that her visualization tool will empower researchers in genetics, cell, and molecular biology to more effectively carry out their work. Her research is supported through an NSF graduate research fellowship, the Duke Endowment, the James B. Duke fellowship, and the University Scholars Program.

Ellerbee sees a wealth of clinical implications for SDPM and is collaborating with Duke associate professor of pediatrics Tony Creazzo to advance his work with cardiac cells. “Tony is interested in embryonic myocardial function and this tool allows him to investigate how the heart develops. Most of the available tools can only be used to study adult heart cells. We can actually see individual heart cells beating and contracting from chick embryos that are 2 days old,” Ellerbee explains.

To put Ellerbee’s research into context, heart disease is one of the leading killers in both men and women in the U.S. Loss of contractility – the ability of the heart to contract–— is one of primary symptoms of heart disease. Since diseased adult hearts often exhibit characteristics similar to those exemplified by young, immature hearts, a better understanding of the early stages of heart development could provide valuable insight into relevant treatment.

“SDPM holds tremendous potential to make an impact in many areas of research,” said Ellerbee, who hopes to complete her doctoral work in 2006. Much of the work now entails documenting the capabilities of the technique and informing the scientific community so as to convince them of its viability. Publishing and presenting the research brings new sets of challenges.

“Optical coherence tomography is a very young and therefore a very competitive discipline,” said Ellerbee. “If you do good work, once you release information to the scientific community, you can plan on being scooped. Everyone is getting scooped. There is a lot of focus on getting technologies patented and starting new businesses.”

Although the opportunity to make a difference resonates with Ellerbee, she is still searching for the career path that really suits her. At this point she doesn’t plan to pursue a research career.

“More and more I’m finding the idea of public policy appealing,” she explains. “This is an area where I know my technical background as an engineer would be important and helpful, but I would also be exposed to broader aspects of public welfare and I find that appealing.”