Nurturing Curiosity: David Wagner’s philanthropic impact on cardiovascular research

Forty years ago, David Wagner, MD, gained the vital hands-on skills that he needed to launch a career in otolaryngology surgery—all thanks to his mentor, Donald Heistad, MD, a University of Iowa Health Care cardiologist and 2020 recipient of the Darryl and Nancy Granner Carver College of Medicine Distinguished Mentor Award. It was an experience that Wagner has not forgotten, and he wanted to pay it forward to current and future students.

“No gift you can make to education and research is too small,” Wagner said. “Anything a person can do to help the education of the next generation will make a positive impact on someone else’s life. And, in medicine, it will end up positively impacting many lives beyond that single person.”

Recently, Wagner made a generous gift to the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine to support undergraduate research, as his initial focus in medicine was cardiothoracic surgery. Henry Lin, a University of Iowa junior majoring in biomedical science and minoring in computer science, is the first recipient of Wagner’s generosity.

In addition to his coursework, Lin currently holds two jobs. He both works as an Emergency Medicine Technician (EMT), and with Jared McLendon, PhD, conducting and learning research nearly every day.

“The thing that I enjoy the most about the research work that I am doing in the McLendon Lab is seeing the things I learn in class being put to use in real time,” Lin said. “It is fascinating to see how concepts that we learn on paper are being put into practice, and to see the physiological responses of carotids and aortas as the drugs are being introduced. To me, that intersection between learning and hands-on experiences is very satisfying and fulfilling.”

In the McLendon Lab, Lin is investigating the role of the Sorbs2 protein on vascular smooth muscle cells. Using a combination of biomedical research techniques, he will answer questions related to the role that the Sorbs2 protein plays in vascular smooth muscle cell contraction, cytoskeletal remodeling, and mechanotransduction. This past summer, Lin was focused on the vascular contraction question with the help of Isabella Grumbach, MD, PhD.

“Henry has become quite proficient isolating and mounting mouse carotid arteries on myographs and measuring the isometric forces generated with classic vasoconstrictor and vasodilators,” McLendon said. “This fall, while balancing his undergraduate courses, Henry will be focused on the mechanical stresses question with the help of Kris DeMali, PhD. Henry will learn how to isolate primary vascular smooth muscle cells, perform initial experiments using stretch as a mechanical force, and determine if expression, localization, or phosphorylation of Sorbs2 is changed.”

This spring, McLendon received a three-year, $231,000 AHA Career Development Award to continue studying the Sorbs2 gene. Read about that here.

This project was started by another undergraduate student last year, and Lin is assisted in this research by two more current students. The McLendon Lab will be submitting a manuscript this fall with each student as a co-author, describing some of the lab’s initial discoveries.

“The fact that I will be listed as a co-author on a scholarly product as an undergraduate honestly feels quite surreal,” Lin said. “It’s very exciting to know that the work that I do will be a part of a publication that directly impacts the scientific community and will contribute to further our knowledge and understanding of the human body.”

Lin’s current career goals include completing medical school to become a practicing cardiothoracic surgeon, following in the original footsteps of his benefactor. This goal that has been reinforced by his hands-on experience in various labs on campus.

During a recent visit to the Iowa campus, Wagner had the opportunity to meet Lin in person. While discussing Lin’s academic pursuits, Wagner advised him, “Investigation is what makes you become a good thinker and ask questions, and try and explore and discover. No matter what you do, that’s the most important part. It inspires you to be a problem solver. I’m glad you are doing it in undergrad, too – some people do it after medical school – but Dr. Heistad and I believe the sooner, the better. That’s what we’re trying to make a little difference on. We hope to keep this going a long time.”

Wagner’s support for undergraduate research training in cardiovascular medicine is already creating a ripple effect in academic medicine at the university. McLendon asserts that such experiences at the undergraduate level teach more than how to complete a research project.

“In my opinion, it is one of the few opportunities that encourages many attributes one needs in a professional career: hard work, teamwork, effective communication, perseverance in adversity, troubleshooting problems, and critical analysis of one performance,” McLendon said. “Although students can be motivated by many things, I believe curiosity is one of the strongest motivations for independent learning. Thus, my goal when training mentees is to stimulate curiosity by making content exciting and relatable. After I demonstrate the core concepts or techniques, I encourage my trainees to initiate independent study of supporting ideas, and then leverage team-based learning among each other to demonstrate mastery of ideas.”

This is McLendon’s adaptation of the ‘see one, do one, teach one’ approach, which requires trainees to take ownership of their projects, creating a collaborative environment of independent learners.

“If successful, my mentoring approach can help students become not only proficient in the subject matter but also confident, self-directed learners who are well-prepared for future challenges,” McLendon said.

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