Dylan Mittauer had mentally prepared himself for a rough first day on the job in the lab of Isabella Grumbach, MD, PhD. With only the knowledge he gained from his freshman Foundations of Biology course and no previous lab experience, Mittauer felt underprepared for what awaited him in the Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building.
But with a long-term career goal of becoming an Emergency Medicine physician, Mittauer knew he needed this job. Medical schools look for not just academic excellence, he knew, but dedication to scientific discovery. By connecting with the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates, Mittauer was able to find and apply for the job in Grumbach’s lab. He appreciated the potential for clinical application in Grumbach’s research and wanted to be a part of it.
Now, a year and a half after that first day, Mittauer can handle more advanced tasks such as live mice surgeries, tissue cultures, carotid artery tissue staining, and more. With the help of Grumbach and Mittauer’s enthusiasm to learn, Mittauer’s steady growth has resulted in a number of achievements including co-authoring a publication in Science Signaling earlier this year.
From “liability” to “contributor”
“Although the work wasn’t glamorous, my first month or two was an opportunity to familiarize myself with the foreign world of lab research while learning critical skills like pipetting, data analysis, mouse work, and microscopy,” Mittauer said. He prepped solutions, completed rudimentary assays, and helped maintain the lab. “More importantly, when I’m in lab I now feel less like a liability and more like a contributor. If you told the version of myself that arrived on my first day that in a year I would be listed as a co-author on a publication, I simply would not believe it.”
Mittauer’s work in the lab focuses on the effects of diabetes on cardiovascular function with special focus on arterial restenosis caused by cell proliferation. To study this properly, the Grumbach team inhibits a mitochondrial protein called kinase CaMKll from a mouse model. That inhbition results in calcium dysregulation in the cell. “This alters the production of superoxide and other free radicals from the mitochondria,” Mittauer said.
Mittauer is now at the point where he can run his own project with lighter supervision. “My current project examines how this reduction in free radical production alters the MAPK signaling pathway for cell proliferation to understand what signals smooth muscle cells to divide, and how we can change it.”
As his understanding of the cardiovascular system and cell layers deepens, his coursework benefits as well. His current project has plenty of overlaps with his Human Physiology course. “That’s one of my favorite things. The exposure to an expansive menu of basic science techniques, and the freedom to spend time in whatever area I feel drawn to,” Mittauer said. “It can certainly be hectic at times, but the variety of experiences I receive on a given day between what I learn in class and what I accomplish in lab make it worthwhile.”
The basics still matter
In Grumbach’s lab, it is up to each undergraduate to decide what kind of experience they want to extract from the lab. However, Grumbach likes to emphasize the importance of all tasks, including maintaining supplies and washing dishes.
“We have superb undergrads and they all make a contribution to our work. The undergrads who work on a project are paired with an experienced scientist and help with experiments,” Grumbach said. “Ideally, at some point, they have the skills to do an experiment by themselves with minimal help.” Grumbach says that the social interactions between mentors and undergraduate students is one of the best parts of having students like Mittauer in the lab.
Undergraduates in Grumbach’s lab can also research and develop data for papers and grants or even help draft manuscripts for publication. These experiences may be their first, but they will not be the last. Many of the undergraduates go on to enroll in and complete medical school or another graduate program in the sciences.
Mittauer describes Grumbach and research assistant professor Ohla Koval, PhD, as mentors who embrace freedom and flexibility. Not only do they both encourage his prioritization of school work, they also encourage him and his peers to explore areas of study they are particularly interested in.
“I clearly remember during my first few months, when I had little confidence in my abilities, that Dr. Koval would constantly remind me that ‘there are no mistakes here.’ When I screw up, it isn’t followed by discipline. Instead it is an opportunity to learn what I can do better in the future,” Mittauer said. “I believe this approach to teaching has been the single greatest contributor to my development as a researcher.”
The road ahead
With a father in the Navy, Mittauer grew up all over the country. After Florida, Virginia, and Connecticut, Mittauer’s family settled down in Cedar Rapids, where Mittauer finished high school. Since joining the University of Iowa, Mittauer spends his free time cycling, watching football, playing the guitar, hanging out with his dog, Gracie, and serving as an executive on Iowa’s intramural spikeball club.
Now, with applications to medical school on the horizon, Mittauer believes the experience and the knowledge he has earned from Grumbach’s lab will be fundamental to his success. “The content I’ve learned on the frontline of biomedical research have given me perspective on how the commonly used medical therapies and interventions come into place,” Mittauer said. “I feel much more capable of understanding the mechanism for how a drug works after spending a year trying to elucidate a signaling pathway.”