Biology Major Awarded Grant for Scientific Research

August 06, 2012

Alexa Hartman ’13
Alexa Hartman ’13 attaches a pipette to a pipette aid while working on splitting HL-1 cells at the McAllister Heart Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Photo by Will Arey, UNC Health Care News Office)

Alexa Hartman ’13 has always been a “grab life by the uneven parallel bars” sort of girl. At the age of 13, she was a Junior Olympic gymnast. Her affinity for performing somersaults across leather-clad vaults landed her numerous accolades as well as in several hospital beds.

“I knew that I wanted to be a doctor since I was 11,” Hartman said. “I’ve broken many bones and have had a lot of surgeries, which made me want to help other people as a doctor.”

Although Hartman already has a packed resume—she is treasurer of her sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi; vice president of Rollins’ Chapter of the American Medical Student Association; vice president of Rollins’ Chapter of the American Society for Microbiology; and a member of the Rollins Sailing Team—her college career received a boost when she began working as research assistant to Assistant Professor of Biology Susan Walsh in the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program.

Hartman worked with Walsh studying the genetic form of Parkinson’s disease as it relates to mitophagy, using yeast as a model system and focusing on three proteins and the degradation of mitochondria in the cell.

“I was continuously impressed with Lex’s motivation, preparedness, and competence,” Walsh said. “She managed to design site-directed mutagenesis of amino acids to make phosphomimetics before taking a single biochemistry, molecular biology, or genetics course. She walked into the laboratory barely knowing how to use a micropipet, but by the sixth week, she was planning and conducting her own experiments and working nearly independently.”

“Dr. Walsh is the one who really inspired me to do research,” Hartman said. “I never even realized that I would like doing research until working with her.”

“In this short time, she cloned plasmids and helped to generate over 50 different yeast cell lines through sequential transformation and selection,” said Walsh. “In the end, her proposal was well written, despite the complicated, unpublished model on which it was based.”

Sponsored by Rollins, Hartman was able to present the findings of her research at the annual Sigma Xi conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she met Monte Willis, a principal investigator at the McAllister Heart Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who took an interest in her research in the role of ubiquitination in familial Parkinson's disease.

The scientific research honor society Sigma Xi awarded Hartman with a Grant-in-Aid of Research providing her the opportunity to work with Willis for three months this summer in his laboratory at the McAllister Heart Institute. Researching the regulation of MuRF1 activity on cardiomyocyte metabolism via mechanical stress, she and Willis are using physiologic, molecular, and genetic approaches to study the role of protein-protein interactions and movement in heart failure and metabolism.

“We are working with HL1 cells derived from immortal murine cardiomyocytes,” Hartman said. “They are essentially cardiomyocytes that can live forever as long as you give them the proper growth conditions. The unique thing about these cells is that once they have confluent growth, they actually start to beat as if they were a heart inside the Petri dish.”

“It has been an amazing experience,” Hartman said. “The labs are huge and there is so much new equipment and technology to work with. There’s also this multitude of people who have so much knowledge. I’ve honestly been soaking in as much knowledge as I can. It’s like I’ve been bombarded with science, and I absolutely love it.”

This year, Hartman will travel twice to the University of North Carolina to present the findings from her summer research, once in the fall and again the spring with the possibility of attending the annual Experimental Biology Conference in Boston.

After obtaining her undergraduate degree from Rollins next May, Hartman hopes to return to the University of North Carolina as a UNC student and continue her research with Willis while pursuing a doctorate degree in laboratory medicine and pathology.

“She is genuinely motivated to succeed in the laboratory, and more importantly, she is passionate, inquisitive, precise, and careful about her work,” said Walsh. “Given her intrinsic ability and interest, I think she will succeed in any research experience, particularly those which allow her to investigate the cellular mechanism of human disease.”

“This summer is a starting point,” Hartman said. “There are so many other branches we can go off of with other proteins. We are going to start with this one, knock it down, and see what happens.”

This mentality seems to be an overarching motto in Hartman’s life—set a goal, knock it down, and see what happens.

By Brittany Fornof

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