Undergrads in research: Abagail McKernan

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.

Abagail McKernan was a first-year student at the University of Iowa without a major and mostly just looking for a paycheck when she applied to work in the lab directed by Barry London, MD, PhD. Three years later, McKernan is about to start her senior year as a Biology major with her heart set on a future in research and a Latham Fellowship already in the books.

“If you would have asked freshman Abagail if she wanted to pursue a PhD, I would have given a resounding ‘no’, but now I cannot imagine my life without it,” McKernan said. “What was initially dish cleaning and autoclaving became restriction enzyme digests and EKG analyses. Now, my work in the London lab is challenging, innovative, and hands on.”

Each day, graduate research assistants Alex Greiner and Daniel Matasic GreinerMatasicare there to help and guide McKernan through each of the projects. McKernan spends her days in the lab assisting Greiner with identifying variants that cause cardiac disease using whole exome and Sanger sequencing. Once London has confirmed these variants, Greiner and McKernan create plasmids that will later be studied in a cell that does not usually produce that protein. McKernan has also helped characterize genes in mice and has studied phenotypic effects using EKG analysis.

“They invest a lot of time in us because they truly care about our successes and want us to do well,” McKernan said of Greiner and Matasic. “Not only am I a member of a brilliant and impactful research group, but I am a member of a family like none other.”

Participating in London’s lab has opened doors and provided new opportunities to McKernan, including poster presentations as well as traveling the country to conduct research at other institutions. The connections she has formed during those travels will eventually help McKernan achieve her goal of having an impact on the lives of people nationwide through clinical research.

“I know that the fundamental skills, knowledge, and work ethic that I have learned from Dr. London and his lab will prepare me for a career as a physician scientist,” McKernan said. “For that, I am thankful for the opportunities Dr. London has given me.”

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