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Sounding Out Cancer: USU Student Presents on Utah's Capitol Hill

Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012

USU undergradaute researcher Kristina Sorensen

Combining her fascination with acoustics and math, USU undergraduate Kristina Sorensen is investigating the use of high frequency ultrasound to detect microscopic cancer cells.

ceiling detail of Utah state capitol building

Sorensen is among 33 Aggies presenting research to legislators and guests at the 2012 Undergraduate Research Day on Utah's Capitol Hill Jan. 24, in Salt Lake City.

A love of music and math, as well as a fascination with acoustics, led Utah State University Honors student Kristina Sorensen on a research path that could make a big difference in treatment decisions for millions of cancer patients.

“A critical challenge for cancer surgeons is determining whether or not they’ve taken enough of a safe margin of healthy tissue surrounding a malignancy,” says Sorensen, mathematics major and recipient of a College of Science Undergraduate Research Minigrant. “Taking too little may mean they didn’t get all of the cancer. Taking too much means the patient has to live with the consequences of an unnecessarily aggressive excision.”

With faculty mentor Tim Doyle, adjunct research associate professor in USU’s Department of Physics, Sorensen is investigating the use of high frequency ultrasound to scan tissue for microscopic cancer cells. She’s among 33 USU students presenting findings to Utah legislators and guests at the 2012 Undergraduate Research Day on Utah’s Capitol Hill Jan. 24, in Salt Lake City.

“What’s novel about this approach is surgeons could scan tissue right in the operating room as they’re performing surgery,” says Sorensen, a native of suburban Minneapolis and a 2009 graduate of Minnesota’s Eden Prairie High School. “This could prevent patients from requiring follow-up surgeries because the spread of cancer wasn’t detected during the initial surgery.”

Sorensen’s mentor Doyle is conducting the National Institutes of Health-funded research in collaboration with Salt Lake City’s Huntsman Cancer Institute, the University of Utah and Utah Valley University.

Sorensen’s dad, Bryant, who graduated from USU in 1992, works for a hearing aid company and, from him, the undergrad developed an interest in both medical and musical acoustics. 

“One of my dad’s colleagues met Dr. Doyle at a professional meeting and mentioned my interest in acoustics and that I was a student at USU,” says Sorensen, who plays flute and piano and also enjoys singing. “Hearing about the use of sound waves for cancer detection really piqued my interest.”

Sorensen’s strengths in math and her passion for the research subject made her an ideal fit for the research project, Doyle says. The undergraduate presented at the 2011 Acoustical Society of American Annual Meeting in San Diego this past November [2011], where she earned a travel award to cover her participation. She also received a first place award at the annual Institute of Biological Engineering Western Regional Conference hosted by USU in October 2011. In addition, Sorensen is among the authors of a paper the research team published this year in an NIH journal.

“The American Institute of Physics was so impressed with one of her poster abstracts, they requested a lay version of her paper for distribution to such media venues as National Public Radio, Nature, New Scientist and The New York Times,” Doyle says. “She is making phenomenal progress with her research and is an invaluable contributor to the project.”

Sorensen says the opportunity to be involved in research is greatly enhancing her undergraduate experience.

“Classes can only take you so far,” she says. “The hands-on experiences help you understand the theory and how to apply principles. The raw exploration of science is exciting and a genuine challenge.”

Sorensen says USU wasn’t her first choice when she thought about college destinations; she had several East Coast campuses in mind.

“I wanted to pursue a science major but I also wanted to be able to participate in music,” she says. “Most music departments weren’t receptive to the idea of a non-music major getting involved with their groups but USU’s music department was very welcoming.”

At USU, Sorensen, the recipient of a Presidential Scholarship and an Alumni Legacy Nonresident Scholarship (her mother, Marie Adamson Sorensen ’92, is also an Aggie), has participated in the Aggie Marching Band, the Flute Choir and the Symphonic Band.

“I’ve had wonderful support and mentorship at USU,” she says. “I love that I’m able to pursue all of my passions.” 

Related links:

Cancer Detection: USU Physicist says It’s Rocket Science,” Utah State Today

USU College of Science

Contact: Kristina Sorensen,

Contact: Tim Doyle, 801-863-5410,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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