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Research Week 2022: Keynote Speaker

Dr. Heidi DiFrancesca joined Liberty University in the fall of 2021 as the new dean of the School of Health Sciences, bringing with her 10 years of experience as an educator, researcher, and administrator in health and biomedical sciences. Prior to joining Liberty, Dr. DiFrancesca served as the Executive Director of Academic Affairs for Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. While at Johns Hopkins, she provided leadership and oversight for academic affairs and administered graduate and post-doctoral programs focused on the intersection of basic science and medicine from a public health perspective. In her role, Dr. DiFrancesca actively supported the research endeavors of faculty and students working on various projects aimed at gaining new insights into the cellular, biochemical, and molecular mechanisms that underlie normal and abnormal cellular processes and the relevance of these studies as targets for improving health and treating disease, including cancer.

Prior to Johns Hopkins, Dr. DiFrancesca served as the founding Associate Dean for the School of Natural Sciences at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. In her role at UMHB, Dr. DiFrancesca oversaw a broad range of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs and actively supported ongoing research projects among faculty and students. Key areas of focus in research included the development of AR/VR and operating system applications, alternative energy solutions, prosthetic development, simulation of neural responses to auditory stimuli, development of self-driving RC cars using an artificial CNN Deep learning algorithm, maintenance of genome integrity and protein homeostasis in response to various stresses, characterization of genetic regulatory networks in normal and diseased cells using bioinformatics, and fuel cell catalysts and fuel cell electrochemistry.

Dr. DiFrancesca holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Duquesne University. A molecular cancer biologist by training, she studied molecular pathways contributing to hormone-dependent breast cancers. She examined the utility of steroid sulfatase (STS), an enzyme found ubiquitously in breast tissue, as a both a biomarker and an independent prognostic indicator for estrogen-receptor positive (ER+) breast cancers. STS converts inactive estrogens into active estrogens which can dramatically increase the localized bioavailability of estrogens that may confer a growth advantage to ER+ breast malignancies, particularly in post-menopausal women. Elevated expression of STS at both the mRNA and protein levels have been shown to be positively correlated with more aggressive hormone-receptor positive (ER+/PR+) breast cancer phenotypes, indicating its usefulness as an independent prognostic indicator of breast cancers that rely on estrogens for their growth, which could influence clinical treatment of such cancers. In her first academic role at McMurry University, she has maintained an active undergraduate research program where the members of her laboratory investigated the expression levels of the enzyme to validate its utility in predicting prognosis in breast cancers that depend on hormones to survive. Their work showed a correlation between higher expression levels of both the STS transcript and the protein within ER+ breast tumors and worsened prognosis.

Though Dr. DiFrancesca no longer maintains an active laboratory, as a scientist, researcher, and educator, she values research and recognizes the positive impact that research and scholarly activities can contribute to educational experiences and to academia, enriching both. In her role, she ardently promotes and supports research endeavors among faculty and students.

Here is a link to watch Dr. DiFrancesca’s keynote address: https://watch.liberty.edu/media/t/1_huwefcp2

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