National Academy of Engineering elects UC Davis professor to class of 2014

Dr. Katherine Ferrara, UC Davis biomedical engineering professor and founding chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, was recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) class of 2014. Ferrara was elected for her contributions to theory and applications of biomedical ultrasonics.

Ferrara is one of the 67 new members to join the National Academy. Her election, along with the rest of the National Academy class of 2014, was announced Feb. 6 during the academy’s national meeting in Irvine, Calif. New members are elected by current members of the academy based on their achievements in research.

“I am particularly pleased by the selection of Professor Katherine Ferrara of our Department of Biomedical Engineering,“ said Enrique Lavernia, dean of the UC Davis College of Engineering, via email. “She helped found this dynamic department, served as its first department chair, and has helped the department gain a significant national stature.”

Ferrara is currently working on methods to better image diseases, particularly cardiovascular disease and cancer. Ferrara said what the National Academy was interested in was her work on using tiny gas bubbles to image cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Ferrara found that when little gas bubbles are injected into a patient’s bloodstream and an ultrasound wave is sent towards them, the gas bubbles will make unique sounds. Ferrara said her team was among the first to show how these unique sounds can help develop techniques involving gas bubbles to treat patients clinically.

For example, Ferrara’s work found that injected anticancer drugs encased in tiny capsules can be directed by ultrasound towards the cancerous tumour. The capsule is then burst by ultrasonics, releasing the drugs and reducing side-effects on other tissues and organs.

Ferrara said she had been interested in working with ultrasound imaging for a long time. After collaborating with a cardiologist from the University of Virginia who was also interested in using gas bubbles clinically, Ferrera was able to come up with strategies on how to use gas bubbles with ultrasound based on her observations.

As concurrent imaging methods, such as MRI, CT, PET and ultrasound, evolve into a standard for the precise delivery of therapeutics, Lavernia predicts Ferrara’s work to have a large impact on future medical research.

“Professor Ferrara has earned a global reputation for her ground-breaking work in image-guided drug delivery, which we can expect to become one of the touchstones of early 21st century medical breakthroughs,” Lavernia said.

Ferrara is the 17th faculty member from the UC Davis College of Engineering to be elected to the National Academies. Ferrera joins other faculty members such as Lavernia and Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi in the prestigious academy.

Denneal Jamison-McClung, associate director of the UC Davis Biotechnology Program and program coordinator for UC Davis ADVANCE, is pleased that more diverse individuals are being recognized for their work in academic science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“[Professor] Ferrara is active in the UC Davis ADVANCE program, which promotes diversity in STEM,” Jamison-McClung said via email. “Any time we have a woman recognized for her achievements at the highest levels, it lets younger women know that the ‘sky is the limit’ for their own professional achievements.”

Because only eight out of the 67 inductees to the NAE this year are women, Karen McDonald, associate dean of Engineering, also predicts Ferrara’s achievement to have a positive impact on women in STEM academics at UC Davis.

“Professor Ferrara’s election to the National Academy of Engineering will certainly encourage our women undergraduate and graduate students to pursue STEM careers, as well as inspire our women faculty,” McDonald said via email. “In addition to her major research contributions in the field of biomedical engineering, she also finds time to give back to the STEM community by helping women who are following her path.”

As a physical therapist, Ferrara said she often worked with patients who had cancer or cardiovascular disease. Well aware of the profound effects these diseases could have, Ferrara was drawn towards finding methods to treat cancer and cardiovascular disease.

“I’ve always been a believer that if you could diagnose something earlier, that you have the potential to have a bigger impact,” Ferrara said.

Ferrara said her interest in science is largely attributed to her father, who was also a biomedical engineer.

“I started as a physical therapist and my dad also was a biomedical engineer, so he had a lot of influence on me,” Ferrara said. “Really before biomedical engineering got started, he worked on the first sort of artificial heart and some of the early pace makers, so that had a major influence on me growing up.”

The National Academy of Engineering is one of the four organizations that make up the United States National Academies. The National Academies were established by the U.S. Congress to advise the nation on science, engineering and medicine.

Ferrara is a graduate from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from California State University, Sacramento and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from UC Davis.

“I thank both the inspiration of my parents who have definitely backed me and my husband who has given me a lot of support, as well as many members of my laboratory who have performed experiments and worked very hard to achieve the results and discoveries we’ve made,” Ferrara said.

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