The Fulbright U.S. Student Program usually prioritizes graduate students and doctoral candidates for their Spain open study and research awards. However, among the 112 applicants from across the country, Margaret Mungai, an undergraduate in the laboratory of E. Dale Abel, MD, PhD, was one of the 24 finalists to receive a Spain Fulbright award. Mungai will join Antonio Zorzano, PhD, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and coordinator of the Molecular Medicine Programme at the University of Barcelona’s Institute for Research in Biomedicine.
A Fulbright award allows Mungai to travel to Spain to work on an independent project with Zorzano’s research team, which focuses on the mitochondrial fission and fusion dynamics in relation to insulin resistance, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Depending on the development of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mungai is expected to collaborate with Zorzano’s team for nine months.
Mentored by Antentor “A.J.” Hinton, Jr., Ph.D, and Renata Pereira, PhD, Mungai conducts research focusing on the mitochondrial protein known as Optic Atrophy-1 (OPA1). As part of Hinton’s team, Mungai investigates the correlation between Type II diabetes, increased mitochondrial endoplasmic reticulum contact sites (MERCs), and OPA1 loss. Mungai suggests that MERCs are believed to be essential for calcium levels, fat transfers and mitochondrial fission and fusion dynamics. The link between mitochondrial dynamics and endoplasmic reticulum stress response could possibly provide answers as to how insulin resistance develops.
“With Dr. Zorzano’s insight, we can answer several critical questions around intra-organelle communication and lipid trafficking,” Mungai said. “Currently, we study communication networks called MERCs, but it is not well understood how smooth MERCs work after the loss of an essential mitochondrial protein.”
“Margaret is always looking forward to the next goal, not wasting time to fly higher into the atmosphere of success,” Hinton said. “Margaret is truly a scholar—a future leader in science and medicine who has the ‘grit’ required to reach all of her future aspirations, such as an NIH-funded training program for physician-scientists at a highly ranked medical program.”
“I am extremely proud, but not surprised, of Margaret Mungai’s achievement. She has always set high goals for herself and has gone the extra mile to achieve them,” Pereira said. “As a consequence, she has been outstanding as an undergraduate student, and I am confident she will excel in her future endeavors.”
Hinton says a Fulbright has been one of Mungai’s personal goals since joining Abel’s laboratory, and he believes this achievement will allow Mungai the chance to learn novel techniques in biochemistry and inspire others.
Over the course of approximately 75 years, the Fulbright U.S. Student program and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has offered college graduates, graduate school candidates and young professionals like Mungai the chance to collaborate with researchers and mentors all around the world. The University of Iowa has been a “top producer” of Fulbright students, achieving this elite ranking five years in a row.