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DRC Director's Update - August 2019

FOE Diabetes Research Center faculty recognize the importance of continuing the tradition of research excellence as we fight for the bridge to the cure. Because of this, part of our mission must be the preparation of the next generation of diabetes researchers. In addition to our commitment to training Ph.D. students and Postdoctoral scholars, the FOEDRC is a leader at the University of Iowa in providing research experience to our undergraduate students.

FOEDRC laboratories currently host an impressive 62 undergraduate students. They exemplify our mission and obligation to instill in our trainees at all levels, premedical, undergraduate medical, and graduate medical the importance of rigorous hands-on training in the scientific method. 

These experiences have and will continue to shape the lives of our undergraduate students, many of whom have already gone on to medical and graduate school. Their scientific knowledge and motivation will undoubtedly over time play a role in discovering new treatments, while making sure that we use existing treatments in the best possible ways to enhance the quality of life for the many members of our global community who are afflicted by diabetes and its complications. 

FOEDRC laboratories train some of the best and brightest students the University of Iowa has to offer. Permit us to highlight four such undergrads: 

Benjamin Kirk

While his fellow classmates sleep in, undergraduate Benjamin Kirk begins his day at 7:30 a.m., sitting in five hours of classes before making his way to the fourth floor of Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building (PBDB). There, he will spend the next five hours quantifying data in a lab overseen by E. Dale Abel, MD, PhD. “To date, I have found that the mitochondrial protein OPA-1 may be important for reducing the levels of a cell eating process called autophagy. When OPA1 levels in muscle are low, autophagy increases and long-term muscle wasting occurs,” Kirk said. 

Across the span of eight months of his sophomore year, Kirk has presented posters at four conferences, including the National Council on Undergraduate Research conference in Georgia. Kirk has also received publishing credits on six abstracts, including five National Conference abstracts. As a result of his achievements, Kirk earned a fellowship with the University of Iowa’s Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation and a fellowship with Iowa Biosciences Academy. 

Margaret Mungai

A primary focus of the Abel Lab is on the effects mitochondrial fusion and fission dysfunction have on diabetes. Smaller research projects that support this bigger question get assigned to graduate and undergraduate students. Margaret Mungai, an undergraduate student in the Abel Lab, has been looking at mitochondria’s response to reduced levels of the protein OPA1. OPA1 plays an important role in the formation of mitochondrial-endoplasmic reticulum sites (MERCs), which have been correlated with Type 2 Diabetes and insulin resistance. 

So far, she has found that when OPA1 levels are reduced, as occurs in diabetes there is an increase in MERCs in order to relieve mitochondria stress caused by OPA1 deficiency. Earlier this year, Mungai received special recognition for this project work with an Excellence in Undergraduate Research award from the University of Iowa’s Vice President for research. 

Madeline Moffett

Madeline Moffett, an undergraduate Human Physiology major working in the lab of E. Dale Abel, MD, PhD, has been accepted into the Latham Science Engagement Program as one of their fellows for the 2019–20 academic year. Sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Latham fellows will complete two courses in science-communication skills and outreach, design and deliver projects that connect the broader community to scientific research, and participate in a year-end event showcasing their research activity. 

Moffett works most directly with Rhonda Souvenir, PhD, an associate in the Division of Endocrinology and member of the Abel Lab. Moffett’s tasks include assisting Souvenir with in a project that is studying how diabetes might affect the function of platelets, which lead to increased blood clotting. These studies are important because individuals with diabetes are more prone to blockages of their blood vessels. 

“On really special days, I observe or sometimes assist Dr. Souvenir with mouse surgeries, carotid artery isolation and blood collection, and seahorse bioenergetic assays. These experiences have shown me how deep my love and appreciation for science runs,” Moffett said. “I get to be a part of a community dedicated to bettering the lives of others, while also sharpening my critical thinking and problem-solving skills.” 

Jesse Cochran

From a fairly young age, University of Iowa undergraduate Jesse Cochran wanted to be a doctor. The Newton, Iowa, native was curious about how the human body functions and how someday he could help people dealing with various afflictions. In the E. Dale Abel lab group, Cochran performs research with a specific focus on heart disease, metabolism, and endocrinology. 

“Every day, 2,300 American lives are lost due to cardiovascular disease. My family has had a long history of heart failure,” Cochran says. “My work hopes to elucidate the molecular underpinnings of this disease and to develop treatment strategies for these models.” Conducting research has taught Cochran how to approach very complex and intricate problems: he breaks them down into simpler concepts and components. 

“From this reductionist view, I’m able to parse through the mechanisms leading to each component and then synthesize each section to obtain a more holistic perspective,” he says. “Jesse is a very quick learner and asks many questions when introduced to new concepts. Importantly, he not only asks about ‘what to do’ but also ‘why to do’ when it comes to experiments,” Abel says. “He is passionate about discovery and impressively has taken ownership of his project in a way that I would expect from a graduate student.

Moreover, we have been very impressed by his strong critical-thinking skills and his clear curiosity to delve deeply into the literature surrounding his project. “His drive is never quenched by mere data collection, motivating him to further analyze the data, discuss the interpretations that stem therefrom, and draw his own conclusions.” Abel says Cochran has thrived under the tutelage of mentor Yuan Zhang, a junior faculty member in Abel’s lab. “Jesse quickly learned how to perform numerous laboratory techniques that rapidly enabled him to conduct experiments independently,” Abel says. “In return, his contributions have been integral in the success of Dr. Zhang’s project.” 

Though we’ve only highlighted four who are already glowing stars, we are very proud of all our students. We expect each of them to shine only brighter as they move through the next 20 years and light the paths to scientific discovery.

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