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CSB and SJU team makes an IMPACT, places third in challenge

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March 30, 2015

By Mike Killeen

The CSB and SJU team of (from left) Amy Knutson, Eric Boysen, Melissa Quintanilla, Kyle Pundsack and Ben Kor placed third at the IMPACT Challenge.

Most times, students learn a lesson or two from a professor. But recently, CSB and SJU biology professor Michael Reagan learned a lesson from his students.

A team of CSB and SJU students mentored by Reagan placed third in the Innovative Minds Partnering to Advance Cardiac Theranostics (IMPACT) Challenge. The challenge is an undergraduate collaboration in partnership with the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine and the Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS), which has the goal of delaying or preventing the need for heart transplantation in people with HLHS.

CSB students Melissa Quintanilla and Amy Knutson and SJU students Eric Boysen, Kyle Pundsack and Ben Kor presented their hypothesis, "HLHS is caused by maternal use of decongestants that disrupts cell signaling pathways and control of the Tbx gene expression," on Feb. 16 in Rochester, Minnesota.

It marked the second consecutive year that a student team from CSB and SJU received the bronze medal in the competition.

11 teams from CSB and SJU compete

"This is really student driven," Reagan said. "The students decide they want to do this, the students get a group together and the students contact some professors to be a mentor. But the project is student driven; they come up with the ideas, they do the writing."

Overall, 19 teams from eight Minnesota colleges competed in the challenge, with 11 teams and 46 students representing CSB and SJU. Ten teams were selected to give 10-minute oral presentations, including four teams from CSB and SJU.

Reagan, who read several of the hypotheses from the CSB and SJU groups, said he was impressed with the overall quality of the work.

"It was a good lesson for me about what good work students can do if they are interested in it, and they're motivated and how clever they can be," Reagan said. "Several of them talked about how they had learned this in this class, and that in the other class, and they're bringing that together to generate this hypothesis. I think that's so cool. I love it when students can do that.

"It just reinforced to me that I can have students work at this higher level, and they can do it," Reagan said.

A bridge to two ideas

The group initially developed two ideas for their hypothesis.

HLHS is more prevalent in babies born during the early spring months. People take more decongestants in the fall, when the babies were conceived, so the group thought that might be a possible link. Secondly, a particular protein is involved in the development of the heart in the embryo. They theorized there was something wrong with the gene.

Reagan suggested to the group that they try to figure out a way to link the two ideas, and — voila — they developed an idea that decongestants may change how the expression of the gene is regulated.

"It's a great opportunity for students to connect things they have learned in class, to have experience putting a hypothesis out there and having experts in the field look at it and critique it," Reagan said. "It's a scary experience, but it's good to practice that."

Alumna connection

Katie Hartjes Campbell '10 recently completed her doctorate in molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Mayo Graduate School in Rochester, Minnesota.

But her lasting legacy at Mayo might be the Innovative Minds Partnering to Advance Cardiac Theranostics (IMPACT) Challenge, which is in its second year.

"In 2014, I launched the IMPACT program because I wanted to engage undergraduate students in real world biomedical research," said Campbell, who received a degree in biochemistry from CSB.

"Building upon my liberal arts education, I realized the value of approaching the same idea from different perspectives. I wanted to give Minnesota undergraduate students the opportunity to use their critical thinking skills to tackle problems of real value to patients at Mayo Clinic."

The challenge is an undergraduate collaboration in partnership with the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine and the Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS), which has the goal of delaying or preventing the need for heart transplantation in people with HLHS. 

"By challenging students to develop novel hypotheses for the cause of HLHS, the IMPACT program gives young scientists the opportunity to share their creativity with the clinicians and researchers at Mayo Clinic," Campbell said. "In just the first two years of this program, we have already been amazed at the outstanding student contributions and how they transform the way we think about HLHS."