Brecca Gaffney (L’Oreal photos)
When Greeley native Brecca Gaffney
graduated from Northridge High School in 2006, she headed off to Colorado School of Mines in Golden.
“I went there to play
basketball, not to be an engineer,” Gaffney, now 30, said from St. Louis with a laugh Tuesday. “I was better,
or at least I thought I was better, at basketball.
“It was probably the most influential point in my life. From the sports
standpoint, I would say it was moderately successful. We were pretty good. We made it to the (NCAA Division II) tournament
a few years. Unfortunately, I was very good at getting hurt. That affects some of my research today. Growing up playing sports,
I was always inherently interested in how we moved.”
She couldn’t have known that 12 years after arriving on the Golden
campus, and several years after fighting through ankle and shoulder surgeries and a concussion, she still would be immersed
in academic research. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Mines in 2011, then master’s (2013) and doctorate (2017)
degrees from the University of Denver, all in mechanical engineering.
She didn’t stop there.
As Gaffney conducts post-doctoral research in biomechanics at Washington University’s
School of Medicine in St. Louis, she is about to officially receive a $60,000 grant from cosmetics and personal care giant
L’Oreal to continue her work for at least another year.
The grant comes through the company’s 2018 Women in Science fellowship,
which each year awards five of the grants to women engaged in post-doctoral work. The awards ceremony will be at the French
Embassy in Washington D.C. on October 25.
Gaffney started on this track when she took a biomechanics class in her junior year at Mines.
essentially the study of human movement, and that was the first time I really saw my passion for something outside the classroom
— sports and movement — meet what I was passionate for inside the classroom,” she said.
Her father, Kevin, who died
in 1998, was a clinical psychologist, and her mother, Shaunda, was a long-time special education teacher in the Greeley area.
importance of helping people was imbedded in me,” she said.
Brecca Gaffney, right, conducting post-doctoral
research at Washington University in St. Louis.
There were some rough spots, but not many.
“In the field of science, it’s
very easy to feel like you’re not good enough for whatever reason,” she said. “I think it’s more rampant
in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, and I’m not immune to that. Being a graduate student
when your peers are making very successful careers certainly was a challenge, but it was never a derailing factor.”
her doctorate, much of her research involved amputees, honoring a transfemoral amputee family friend.
“My research was focused
in identifying how patients with amputations moved their lower backs and upper bodies differently in a compensation way that
predisposes them to low back pain,” she said. “It’s incredibly debilitating. It’s a huge health
care problem. It’s a huge quality of life problem.”
Brecca Gaffney with her dog, Gryff.
Moving on to St. Louis for post-doctoral
research, she switched her focus a bit.
“My current research is looking at how younger people with chronic hip pain and how
their joints are shaped differently and how the muscle is functioning differently,” she said. “Osteoarthritis
is a big long-term concern of these folks.”
She said her current timetable is to do post-doctoral research for two and a half to three
L’Oreal fellowship has extended my timeline, which I feel very fortunate about,” she said. “Then I’d
transition into a faculty role where I’d perform my own research with more teaching responsibilities.”
The Women in Science grants
caught her attention — and not only because of the money.
“I think it’s very easy to have a conversation about something
that’s wrong,” Gaffney said. “What is less common is having an actual mechanism and pathway to do something
about that. The Women in Science Fellowship inherently in its title is addressing the under-representation of women. So we
can talk about that and talk about that and talk about that, but for this grant, one of the main points is ‘OK, how
are you going to mentor young scientists? How are you going to reach out and address that?’ It was a welcome component
of something I was excited to be a part of.”