Fit to Serve
Fit to Serve: Biological Engineering Student Feeds the Homeless, Fights Wildfires and Prepares for Medical School
During the summer of 2014, Christina Gibbs was fighting a 74-acre spot fire in Idaho’s St. Joe National Forest when a tree began to fall on her crew. The tree had been sighted as a hazard upon arrival — burnt out in the middle and shaped like a horseshoe. Gibbs’ crew was directly below the tree, attempting to roll out hose to extinguish it, when she looked up and saw it twisting.
Immediately, Gibbs took charge. She yelled to alert her crew and began climbing the mountain’s steep incline with her 45-pound pack. After hearing the tree crash behind her, she did a roll call to ensure that all were present and unharmed.
“I started taking charge even though it wasn’t my position to do so,” said Gibbs, a Kellogg, Idaho native who graduates this May with a bachelor’s degree in biological engineering from the University of Idaho. “If someone would have gotten hurt, I wouldn’t have known how to take care of them beyond basic first aid. I realized that I want to have the skills to take care of people.”
That realization — combined with Gibbs’ innate desire to serve — inspired her to pursue a career in medicine. But she wanted to do it through an engineering lens.
“I didn’t want to just memorize ATP production” — or how the body converts energy, Gibbs said. “I wanted to know why the body follows that specific process. I was finally able to make those connections when I combined my knowledge from biochemistry with courses in thermodynamics from the College of Engineering.”
Gibbs became a Biological-Agricultural Engineering Biosystems Option major in the College of Engineering, which was U of I’s closest degree option to biomedical engineering when she enrolled in 2012. The biomedical engineering field involves finding solutions to health care problems through advancements in diagnostics and monitoring. In 2016, U of I Engineering reorganized the option into its biological engineering major and hired three professors with expertise in biomedical applications. The program was a perfect fit for Gibbs.
Assistant Professor Nathan Schiele formed the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) in 2016, and Gibbs became its first president. Using the interpersonal skills she acquired from her sorority, Alpha Phi, Gibbs began recruiting students, created a mailing list, made BMES an officially registered club and coordinated monthly presentations about bioengineering students’ research.
That same semester, she landed a job working in Assistant Professor Bryn Martin’s Neurophysiological Imaging and Modeling Laboratory (NIML).
Gibbs researched what role cerebrospinal fluid plays in different central nervous system disorders, like Lou Gehrig’s disease — which leads to degeneration of nerve cells and eventual death — and how medical technology might advance treatment of the disease. Ultimately, her research will help others understand how drugs could be administered directly into a person’s cerebrospinal fluid, working instantly and avoiding the blood-brain barrier.
Gibbs analyzed MRI images of pigs and monkeys with fluid along their spines. Then she used computer programs to identify the fluid’s geometry and flow velocity at different locations — information that will help with experimentation of drug delivery. Eventually, NIML researchers will use a computer modeling system, rather than animals or humans, to experiment with the administration of various drugs in different locations and concentrations.
Gibbs became a certified nurse aid in 2016 through Gritman Medical Center in Moscow. Soon after she began working at a Moscow nursing home. The job is a good fit for Gibbs, whose altruistic nature linked her to several U of I volunteer opportunities, too.
During her 2013-14 winter break, Gibbs went on a service trip, coordinated by U of I’s Volunteer Center, and served food to people in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, an area known for its high rates of homelessness and crime. Gibbs cites this venture as her most rewarding college experience.
“I really grew as a person and realized the importance of treating people fairly,” Gibbs said. “I had no idea until that trip where some people are in life, and that they still deserved to be treated as equals. That was probably the biggest fundamental change I had at U of I, which wouldn’t have happened if that opportunity wasn’t offered.”
This spirit of service, combined with the tough lesson learned during her firefighting days, the interpersonal skills from her sorority and the perspective of an engineering degree, will no doubt make Gibbs, who applies to medical school this June, a sought-after doctor.
“I wouldn’t have picked a different path,” Gibbs said. “Engineering was perfect because I really learned how to look at things in the big picture.”
Article by Kate Keenan, College of Engineering