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.
For one Iowa high school senior, research was always a part of her future plans. To achieve this aspiration, undergraduate Margaret Mungai began her journey toward that goal of research shortly after stepping on campus, when she met first Antentor Hinton, Jr., PhD, at an on-campus networking event. A year later, as a sophomore, Mungai became Hinton’s mentee, working in the lab directed by E. Dale Abel, MD, PhD. Now a senior neurobiology major, Mungai spends 20 to 30 hours of her week in the lab, focusing on the mitochondria’s effect on the development of diabetes.
“In diabetic patients, mitochondrial dynamics is altered. Mitochondrial dynamics is a process that allows for mitochondria to go through constant cycles of fission and fusion,” Mungai said. “Interestingly, a protein called Optic Atrophy Protein-1 (OPA-1) is involved in fusion cycles and has been implicated in having decreased expression in diabetic and diabetic cardiomyopathies.”
Mungai spends her weeks in the lab rotating through a lengthy list of complex tasks including maintenance of primary murine skeletal muscle, primary human cells, immortalized cell lines, maintaining mouse colonies and mouse genotyping, qPCR, PLA immunostaining, light microscopy, FGF-21 ELISAs, insulin stimulation in cells, immunostaining of tissues and cells, running and analyzing western blots, analysis of transmission electron microscopy (TEM) images using ImageJ and coloring TEM images using Adobe Photoshop.
When her biology classes began discussing the mitochondria unit, mitochondrial metabolism, endoplasmic reticulum and other lab terms, Mungai had already learned hands-on the function of each cell organelle. Additionally, thanks to the combined knowledge she received from her academics and her work in the Abel lab, Mungai can seamlessly discuss research ideas with other professionals at the conferences she attends.
Last academic year, Mungai received Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduate’s Excellence in Undergraduate Research Award, an award given to five students who show great potential in academics as well as in their research. With the award, Mungai received a $1,000 travel award and an ICRU Fellowship. Using the funds from her travel award, Mungai attended the Annual Biomedical Research for Minority Students conference in Indianapolis and presented at the New England Science Symposium at Harvard University.
In fact, Mungai has already presented at six conferences and contributed authorship to six publications, earning her a spot as an intern for the University of Iowa’s LSAMP IINSPIRE program last year. Mungai also began her senior year last week as President of Iowa’s Medicus Premedical Society.
Before this, Mungai spent part of her summer conducting thyroid cancer research and investigating non-iodine deficiency risk factors of certain thyroid gland diseases with Artashes Tadevosyan, PhD, at Yerevan Medical Center. Mungai also worked with a team of researchers to interview randomly selected groups of people based in different regions on Armenia and collected and analyzed soil samples from different regions with an atomic absorption spectrometer. This was all part of a research internship in Armenia, coordinated through the university’s Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training.
Mungai heavily credits the mentorship she’s received in the Abel lab for her success thus far. Hinton in particular has assisted her through many of her achievements throughout the past two years. According to Mungai, Hinton requires the students to compose portfolios for him to examine and return to the students for improvement. Most of all, Mungai thanks Hinton for reviewing her LinkedIn and helping her fine-tune her presentation for the Annual Biomedical Research for Minority Students conference.
“When I applied for the lab assistant position, I was expecting to learn a lot. However, Dr. Hinton has gone above and beyond my expectations of a mentor. He is someone that I look up to for advice, guidance, support, and knowledge,” Mungai said.
In the future, Mungai hopes to succeed as a physician scientist, using the knowledge she learned from her lab experience.
“I am very happy that I have stepped out of my comfort zone because I have learned to deal with fear of failure, learned to overcome my uncertainty, and learned how to glean confidence from within,” Mungai said. “I am forever grateful to be a part of Dr. Abel’s laboratory and my mentors for their contribution into molding me into the person I want to become.”