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Prebys Research Hero: Awardee

Stephanie Fraley

Associate Professor, Bioengineering

University of California San Diego

The Fraley lab is tackling two major challenges facing human health today: advancing infectious disease detection technologies and identifying therapeutic targets for cancer metastasis -- two conditions that account for a significant proportion of deaths globally. 

“The research that’s easy to fund has a high likelihood of working out, but there are things that we come across in the lab that are extremely promising that need a little more time, development, and money.”

- Dr. Stephanie Fraley

Dr. Stephanie Fraley: Engineering Creativity in the Lab

Dr. Stephanie Fraley, an Associate Professor of Bioengineering at University of California, San Diego, got into science in a rather unconventional way – through science fiction. “It’s probably from reading Michael Crichton books as a kid,” she says, laughing. “I love sci-fi.” She wasn’t sure how to go about pursuing a research career, however, but was drawn toward the field in graduate school. “I got hooked the first time I saw a cell crawl across a microscope dish,” she says. “How is this working? What is going on?” She combines her curiosity with her keen interest in engineering in her lab, which studies how and why cancers spread and how to diagnose infectious diseases faster and more accurately.


She was recently awarded a $500,000 Prebys Research Heroes grant, part of a $10 million two-year initiative that celebrates the contributions female scientists make in the field of biomedical and medical research, and which honors outstanding San Diego scientists as a key lever to create a more innovative, equitable, and collaborative medical research system. 


Dr. Fraley studies how and why cancer cells migrate, with the goal of developing new treatment strategies for keeping cancers from spreading to other parts of the body. Dr. Fraley defines herself as a “stereotypical” engineer. “I am very problem-oriented and process-oriented,” she says. “I need to know exactly what the real issue is before I can start tackling it. I think engineers think outside in, where biologists think inside out.” Her special perspective allows her to consider the many factors in understanding how diseases progress.   


Because she and her team are attempting to solve interconnected problems, the biggest challenge lies in speaking what she considers “multiple scientific languages.” Indeed, Dr. Fraley’s lab thrives on variety, boasting a vibrant mix of researchers from many disciplines and cultural backgrounds. They are united by curiosity, resilience, and a shared sense of purpose. Dr. Fraley puts great importance in the power of shared leadership to tackle these challenges, leading to a strong sense of responsibility in her team. “I try to empower everyone to take a leadership role in their own way,” says Dr. Fraley. “If everyone is waiting on everyone else to tell them what to do next, nothing can ever get done.” 


She notes, however, that “The price of creativity is very high. Federal funding comes from success, not failure,” which is why the Prebys Research Heroes award makes such a difference, she says, allowing her to explore her intuition and curiosity. “The research that’s easy to fund has a high likelihood of working out,” she says, “but there are things that we come across in the lab that are extremely promising that need a little more time, development, and money.” 


As she considers how the lab has developed, Dr. Fraley has a lot of hope. She’s supported by a “really fun” international team that likes to tell jokes and which doesn’t shy away from trying new things. The laboratory at UCSD has some of the most sophisticated equipment in the world, providing the team with the tools to inspire that curiosity. She has very specific advice for her students – and for herself: “Keep nurturing that curiosity. That can serve as your motivation and your pleasure and your job satisfaction.” With her multidisciplinary approach and appreciation for creative engineering, Dr. Fraley epitomizes the spirit of innovative research.  

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