August 08, 2014 | Matt Kucinski

Lauren Merz is spending this summer at a research lab in Ann Arbor.

Lauren Merz
Year: Senior
Major: Kinesiology and Spanish
Hometown: Spring Lake

Where are you?

University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI

Why are you there?

I have a research fellowship at the Frankel Cardiovascular Center.

What's your typical day look like?

At 8 a.m. I take the bus to the lab, and I run my experiments. This can vary depending on the day. Sometimes I’m doing hands-on work with the mice, sometimes I run different tests on tissue samples and sometimes I’m analyzing data to present at the research symposium in August. I’m usually in the lab until five or six, sometimes even later. I love the work because no two days are the same. There is always something new and exciting to do and to learn. 

What are you doing?

My lab researches the mechanisms of genetic cardiomyopathies (diseases of the heart muscle), specifically those seen in patients with muscular dystrophy. I’m working on a couple projects, but my primary research studies nitric oxide signaling. In muscular dystrophy patients, there is reduced nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide is important because it helps dilate blood vessels during exercise which is necessary for proper heart function and prevention of excessive post-exercise fatigue. There are a lot of steps in the process of producing nitric oxide, and if even one of these steps is missing then the whole mechanism is thrown off. We introduced a gene into a strain of mice that enhances one of the earlier steps in the nitric oxide mechanism. We hope that this gene might reduce the post-exercise fatigue response in muscular dystrophy mice. This knowledge could help us better understand muscular dystrophy as well as help us develop new, more effective methods of treatment. 

How has Calvin prepared you for this?

I am a kinesiology major with a biochemistry minor, and this pairing gives me a holistic understanding of human physiology. As a kinesiology major, I learn how stressors like disease or exercise affect human physiology. My biochemistry minor provides a strong foundation in the molecular side of science that has been key in understanding the structure and function of things that I work with every day in the lab, like proteins and DNA.

What has surprised you so far?

The amount of responsibility and independence I have in the lab. Some experiments are very complicated, can take days to complete, and use expensive chemicals and machinery. I am usually briefly shown the procedure or how to use the equipment, but then I am trusted to run the experiment on my own and produce honest results. It’s been especially exciting to run experiments where we don’t know the outcome, analyze the data, and help the lab learn something new and previously undiscovered.  

How do you see this experience shaping your future?

This experience has helped me understand the importance of innovative research in providing better treatments and even cures for many human diseases. I love being a part of a community that values learning and continually discovers new things. I’m hoping to continue doing research in medical school as well as integrate it into my future career as a physician.     

Best food you've eaten?

Ann Arbor has so many great restaurants with such unique food that it’s hard to choose just one! The pesto fries from Ashley’s are incredible, and I love the falafel from Jerusalem Garden. I think my favorite so far is the pulpo (fried octopus) from Aventura, a Spanish tapas restaurant. I spent a semester in northern Spain, and dishes like pulpo bring back great memories of my host mom’s amazing meals.

Best picture you've taken?

I’ve taken a lot of pictures of normal and diseased cardiac muscle cells with a fluorescent microscope. The muscle samples are treated so that under a certain type of light the cells appear in shades of red or green with the certain spots lit up and glowing. It is visually very beautiful, but it is also amazing to see individual cells in such perfect detail.

Met anybody memorable?

Once a week I attend a seminar with a handful of other research fellows where we hear about the work and recent findings of one of the labs. Many of these presenters are renowned in their field, and it is a privilege to learn from such respected researchers.  Although the people I meet in the seminars are interesting, I think the people in my own lab are by far the most memorable. They are so knowledgeable and kind which makes the lab really enjoyable. In a round of insane Dutch bingo, the principal investigator (Dr. Dan Michele) and I figured out that we attended the same elementary school, middle school, high school and college. My mom was also his music teacher in middle school. I definitely won’t forget that crazy connection! 

What's gone wrong?

There have been some experiments that I spend multiple days running, and in the end the results are inconclusive or invalid for one reason or another. It’s frustrating to spend so much time and energy on an experiment without good results, but every mistake or dead-end helps me learn how to design and conduct a better experiment for the next try. 

Recent stories