Inspired by her father, student aims to find cure for pancreatic cancer

By Jenny Kincaid Boone and Marya Barlow

Jessica Gannon

Jessica Gannon shifted some of her research work to her Blacksburg apartment this past semester because campus labs were closed due to COVID-19. Photo courtesy Virginia Tech.

One mission drives Jessica Gannon. She is focused on finding a cure for pancreatic cancer.

During her freshman year at Virginia Tech, Gannon’s father passed away from the disease. As she prepares for her senior year as a Hokie, her father’s story continues to inspire her.

“It’s what gets me out of bed every morning,” said Gannon, a mechanical engineering major who is one of the university’s Beyond Boundaries Scholars.

She conducts research under Eli Vlaisavljevich, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics at Virginia Tech. His lab specializes in therapeutic-focused ultrasound and non-invasive therapies for cancer treatment and clinical applications.

In the past few months, as a result of COVID-19, Gannon has had to find new ways to continue her research with limited access to the Therapeutic Ultrasound and Noninvasive Therapies Laboratory on Stranger Street, which has been closed since mid-March. Her Blacksburg apartment serves as her lab, where she has been working on computer-aided design (CAD) projects for her ongoing research.

“While there is a pandemic happening, the reality is that cancer is still affecting many patients and families,” said Gannon, who is minoring in biomedical engineering.

This year will be her second summer research stint at Virginia Tech. Last summer, as part of the Clare Boothe Luce Scholars Program, Gannon continued her research that involves using ultrasound as a noninvasive method for treating pancreatic cancer. Through an internship this summer, she hopes to move forward with this research in the campus lab, if pandemic restrictions lift.

Gannon also is president of Bioactivity, a Virginia Tech student biomedical design group that aims to solve medical problems with an engineering approach. Since COVID-19 began, she has organized group meetings via Zoom for the students to stay connected.

In April, the group even entered a month-long CoVent-19 Challenge hosted by GrabCAD, an online community of engineers, manufacturers, designers, and students. It involved designing a ventilator model that a company could produce and manufacture.

“It’s a good way for us to try to put our brains together to help during the current crisis,” Gannon said.

Alongside academics at Virginia Tech, Gannon has served as fundraising co-executive for the nation’s largest collegiate Relay for Life, which in 2018 raised nearly $500,000 in support of the American Cancer Society. She first became involved with Relay for Life as a high schooler in New Jersey, where she helped lead the event for her school.

“Relay takes on a whole new meaning when your family goes through it [cancer],” Gannon said.

Her long-term goal is to be a lead engineer in the medical device field, working on new technologies for treating cancer and other diseases.

Though she is on pace to complete her bachelor’s degree in 2021, she hopes to continue on to earn a Ph.D. in Virginia Tech’s biomedical engineering program, where she can continue applying mechanical engineering skills to biomedical research and treatments with Vlaisavljevich.


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