When her high school guidance counselor said that chemical engineering would be too difficult a college major for her, Shelly Peyton, UMass Amherst professor of chemical engineering, thought, “For sure, I’m doing that.” Never one to shy away from a challenge, her groundbreaking research has revolved around crucial questions that have bedeviled scientists for well over a century: Where, how, and why does breast cancer spread?
For more than a decade, Peyton has led an interdisciplinary and international group of UMass Amherst engineers and molecular cell biologists who bioengineer artificial materials and use them to study breast cancer and, more recently, traumatic brain injury.
Peyton’s group in the Life Sciences Laboratories at UMass currently focuses on three main research themes. The first is metastasis. Among the questions they’re investigating are: Why does breast cancer spread to the bones, liver, and brain but not other places? How and why does metastasis vary from woman to woman? Why is bone marrow such a hospitable environment for these invading cells? “We have folks building environments that mimic the bone marrow or breast or brain tissue and they are studying how cancer cells move and grow and, importantly, how they respond to drugs in different tissue environments,” Peyton explains.
The lab’s creative approach to using biomaterials to study breast cancer sets it apart and has resulted in many publications and awards and sustained research funding. Rather than study the genetics of the cancer cell, Peyton’s lab looks at the extracellular environment—everything around the cell.
The lab’s second area of focus is using biomaterials that mimic the brain to study traumatic brain injury and other brain diseases, such as multiple sclerosis. “What are the forces required to cause tears in brain tissue that lead to cognitive impairment after you have a concussion?” Peyton asks. Whether the patient is a soldier with a blast wound, a soccer player with an injury from a header, or someone who fell, how hard do these forces need to be to cause impairment?
Peyton describes the lab’s third theme as pushing the boundaries of what scientists can do with biomaterials in order to better understand the characteristics and capabilities of the human body. “We’ve been really excited about making new biomaterials that respond to force,” she says.
Peyton found her path to research early. Born in Coffeyville, Kansas, her father’s job as manager of a grain terminal brought her family from one Midwestern riverfront town to another—from Illinois to Minnesota to Wisconsin and back to Kansas. Her love of math, chemistry, and physics led her to major in chemical engineering at Northwestern University in Chicago, where she was intrigued to learn that chemical engineering principles could be applied to study other things, even human health. She went on to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering at the University of California, Irvine.
After post-doctoral work at MIT, Peyton joined the faculty of UMass Amherst in 2011 and quickly earned prizes for both teaching and research, including an NIH Director's New Innovator Award, designation as a Pew Biomedical Scholar, and an NSF CAREER award. The accolades have continued: In 2019 she was named an American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering fellow, in 2020 she was named UMass Amherst Armstrong Professional Development Professor for a three-year period, and in 2021 she was named a Biomedical Engineering Society fellow.
In her 11 years at UMass Amherst, Peyton has participated on research teams that have received more than $13 million in support from 24 funding sources, with $6.35 million going directly to the Peyton Research Group. She has published more than 48 articles in peer-reviewed journals, has received three patents, and has given at least 65 invited seminars and keynote conference presentations.
In addition, Peyton is dedicated to serving her department and the university. She is graduate program director for chemical engineering. As chair of the department’s diversity, equity, and inclusion committee, she is central to efforts to bring underrepresented minority students to UMass Amherst. She is also co-director of the Models to Medicine Center in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences.
This semester, Peyton is on sabbatical in Seattle, Washington. During her temporary break from teaching, administration, and service, she is taking advantage of sustained time to engage in research collaborations and to get a fresh perspective on her work. She splits her week between the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where she is studying brain metastasis, and the University of Washington Department of Bioengineering, where she is pursuing her interest in using bio materials to better understand breast cancer metastasis.
While on sabbatical, she has had time to reflect on the motivation for her research. “The ultimate goal is always to save lives,” she says. “Metastatic disease is largely thought to be untreatable. We want to find new treatments for patients with metastatic disease and to make those treatments as gentle as possible.”