Hertz Fellowship granted for heart study

October 12, 2006

LIVERMORE, Calif. -- OCTOBER 12, 2006 Proud San Diego resident and future scientific researcher Elizabeth Stephens is flying high these days. This former competitive gymnast is one of 15 students, from more than 670, selected to receive a full five-year fellowship from the prestigious Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting graduate research in applied physical, biological and engineering sciences.

Stephens, 26, will use her fellowship to bolster her laboratory research on congenital heart disease, specifically heart valve problems in children. We know a lot about heart valve disease in adults, but very little is understood about pediatric heart valve disease, Stephens says. In fact, she adds, when a child is born with a heart problem, such as congenital aortic stenosis, treatment options are limited. Mechanical or pig heart valve replacements, while good treatment options for adults, have multiple medical complications in children, and also must be replaced via open heart surgeries as the child grows.

Stephens believes further research into how the heart normally develops, and in particular the role extracellular matrix proteins play in controlling cell growth and differentiation, holds the key to future treatment. I hope to contribute to the development of a heart valve made of a childs own tissue -- a living heart valve that would grow with the child. Stephens is currently pursuing a PhD in bioengineering at Rice University as part of an MD/PhD program focusing on congenital heart disease.

Of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, Hertz Fellows receive up to $240,000 each in support to pursue their own scientific interests with the best academicians at top research universities in the United States. This no-strings-attached support gives Hertz Fellows financial independence from the constraints many graduate students face of having to choose a university or a research project because of its funding.

After a competitive application process, Hertz Fellows are chosen for their creativity and leadership as well as for their achievements in science, says John Holzrichter, PhD, Hertz Foundation president. These young people represent the future of science in America, and the results of their research will make a significant contribution to the ongoing spirit of innovation in this country.

In addition to her science background, Stephens was a competitive gymnast, winning awards for uneven parallel bars at the regional and state levels. She is active at First Presbyterian Church in Houston, teaching Sunday school and reaching out to communities in need through volunteerism.

Stephens is a 1998 graduate of Torrey Pines High School in San Diego, and she holds a bachelor of science in chemistry with highest departmental honors from the University of California, San Diego, where she graduated summa cum laude in 2003. An avid writer and editor, Stephens minored in literature as well as biology. Her past achievements include receiving the Claire Huckins Award for the top medical student in embryology, the Urey Award for being the top graduating chemistry student, and the Caledonian and Phi Beta Kappa honor societies. Her father Richard Stephens is a fusion physicist at General Atomics, and mother Barbara Stephens is a church leader. Stephens older brother Benjamin is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto.