Undergrads in research: Benjamin Kirk

As part of our ongoing series on the role undergraduate students play in Internal Medicine research, we are pleased to feature a few individual students’ stories.

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.

Kirk himself has had three open-heart surgeries, but according to secondary mentor Antentor Hinton Jr., PhD, this does not get in the way of Kirk’s success in the laboratory, where he completes everyday lab tasks and explores the effects of OPA-1 on cell autophagy. Kirk has assisted in University of Iowa labs since he was a high school student, but now his tasks require him to apply advanced classroom concepts and tasks in the lab. Kirk’s lab responsibilities include maintaining murine skeletal muscle, human cells, immortalized cell lines, mouse colonies, mouse genotypes, immunostaining tissues and cells, analyzing transmission electron microscopy images, and more.

“To date, I have found that OPA-1 may be important for reducing the levels of autophagy in the cell and when it is not present, autophagy increases and long-term muscle wasting occurs,” Kirk said. “We believe that this mechanism works through altered autophagosome-mitochondrial associated membrane interactions in the cell.”

These discoveries and experiences are not just limited to the fourth floor of the PBDB. 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.

Kirk also has several upcoming projects including two more Abel lab publications pending approval. In the fall, Kirk plans to apply for an Honors thesis project that will focus on mechanisms preventing autophagosome development and muscle waste using Abel lab mouse models.

Kirk credits his success to the important scientific and life lessons he has learned from Abel, his primary mentor, and Hinton, his bench mentor. “They take daily conversation beyond the typical lab banter and provide an outstanding amount of support in any opportunities that I choose to pursue. I have been able to observe an astounding amount of character qualities in these two that I desire to have someday as a medical professional, such as patience, drive, and a love for exploration.”

Kirk spends his free time mentoring students in the Salt Company, a religious organization on campus, and exercising at the University of Iowa Campus Recreation and Wellness Center.

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