Rewarding research

Tanner Tenpas is one of four UWL students working in Scott Cooper’s lab this summer with support from a National Institutes of Health grant. Here he practices advanced microscopy techniques using a confocal microscope in the Howard Imaging Center at UWL. Cooper looks on.

As $338K grant works to prevent heart attacks and strokes, UWL students get experience

A large National Institutes of Health grant will help a UW-La Crosse faculty member continue research with major medical implications, while training the next generation of scientists and healthcare professionals.

UWL Biology Professor Scott Cooper received the approximately $338,000 grant in July, which will support his decade-long study that aims to understand how to prevent blood from clotting. Results could help prevent heart attacks and strokes, the first and third most common cause of death in the U.S.

In addition to health implications, the grant will also help pay for the up to 30 undergraduate students who join Cooper in his lab each semester to carry out the research. Cooper says his default answer when students ask to participate in his lab is, “yes.” Seniors train newer students. If students contribute to findings, they become co-authors on publications.

“Grants like Dr. Cooper’s provide significant financial support for students to actively participate in the innovation and discovery taking place through faculty’s research,” says Melissa Nielsen, UWL director of Research & Sponsored Programs.

It is important for UWL faculty to do research, first and foremost, because of the experience it gives students, says Mark Sandheinrich, interim dean of UWL’s College of Science and Health. Students learn skills like problem solving, critical thinking, working on a team, writing, presenting results, and more. Some experiences they wouldn’t be able to get in a classroom setting, yet they are critical to employers and when applying to graduate schools.

Tanner Tenpas started undergraduate research in Cooper’s lab while taking an introductory biology class. A senior this fall, he still remembers how intimidated he felt the first day. He was a non-traditional student attending college as a full-time paramedic. He was surrounded by academics — and a research project he didn’t fully understand.

Little by little, he developed an understanding— of the concept behind the research and the lab techniques. And he’s been able to apply this undergraduate research foundation in advanced-level science courses.

Confocal microscope in the Howard Imaging Center. Student Tanner Tenpas says undergraduate research has given him confidence with techniques he’ll use in graduate school and in a future medical career such as using high tech equipment.

Tenpas says the main thing undergraduate research has given him is confidence. Next summer he’ll be taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and will eventually apply to medical school to become a doctor.

“When you start out, you see all these professors who are so good at what they do and are so knowledgeable. It’s hard to see where they came from,” he says. “Undergraduate research gave me confidence that anyone can start at the bottom and work their way up — it doesn’t take a genius to work in science.”

Research also allows faculty to stay engaged and current in their field, which they apply in classrooms, says Sandheinrich.

“I think of it this way, would you like to take piano lessons from someone who doesn’t play?” he asks. “That’s why we need to have faculty, even as full professors, engaged in original scholarship.”

Cooper collaborates with Mayo Clinic in Rochester, as well as several universities on the grant, including Harvard University, Colorado School of Mines, and University of Toronto. The collaborators have instruments that UWL does not have access to, so they are able to run experiments on samples for Cooper. When they have results, the institutions will publish together.

“Some think innovation and discovery only happens at larger, research intensive universities, but predominantly undergraduate institutions like UWL are also actively engaged in cutting-edge research,” says Nielsen. That’s critical to UWL’s mission of student success, she adds.

Understanding blood clotting — with help from hibernators

Scott Cooper’s research aims to learn how ground squirrels prevent their blood from clotting when they hibernate. Answers to this question could lend insight into how to prevent blood clotting in humans, which could be used to treat human heart conditions and bleeding disorders.

Q & A with Scott Cooper:

Q: What is it that squirrels can do that we humans cannot?

A: In humans and other non-hibernating mammals, decreased blood flow leads to the formation of clots that can embolize and move through the body, lodging in the lungs or brain. Hibernating mammals — like 13-lined ground squirrels — drop their heart rates from 200 down to 5 beats per minute during hibernation, yet their blood does not clot. Determining how these animals have adapted to these physiological extremes could lead to applications in treating heart attacks, stroke and blood transfusions.

Q: How will your research will expand through this grant?

A: When the project started in 2007, we knew that a ground squirrel’s blood did not clot during hibernation, but we did not know which of dozens of proteins and cells in the blood were involved. Since then, we have found that the primary mechanism is through changes in the activity of blood cells called platelets that form clots. The activity of these platelets are modified during hibernation to make them resistant to damage by cold storage as seen in human platelets. The ground squirrel platelets also do not become more sticky under low blood flow conditions, which prevents blood clots as the squirrel’s heart rate decreases during hibernation.

Q: Are you getting closer to answers related to how squirrels do this?

A: The current grant will support experiments designed to determine the mechanism of the protective changes in ground squirrel platelets. If the mechanism can be identified, it may be possible to induce similar changes in human platelets allowing them to be stored longer for transfusions, or to inhibit platelet activity in forming dangerous blood clots.

Research reported here was supported by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health under award number R15HL093680. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.