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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Lisa Wren, Driskill Graduate Program in the Life Sciences

Lisa Wren

Lisa Wren, a third-year student in the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences (DPG) and the Masters of Clinical Investigation program, studies cardiac arrhythmia mechanisms in the laboratory of Al George, MD, chair of the Department of Pharmacology. 

Wren earned her undergraduate degree from the Jackson State University in Jackson Miss. Her love for cardiovascular research began in high school and her goal is to become a cardiovascular research scientist who helps to bridge the communication disconnect between the medical community and the public.

Where is your hometown?
I am from Florissant, Mo., in the St. Louis North County area. It’s about 30 minutes north of downtown St. Louis. 

What are your research interests?
Learning about the cardiovascular system was always my favorite topic in the health, human physiology and biomedical research classes that I took in high school. This interest drove me to my first research experience in the cardiovascular research field and I have loved it ever since. When I completed my freshman year at Jackson State University, I started a research internship at Washington University in St. Louis and began to study cardiac ion channels. Through this experience I realized that I was more fascinated with the idea of studying the heart through research rather than the idea of becoming a clinician. I am interested in abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) and the mechanisms responsible for causing them. I am also interested how pharmacological agents can be used to treat some of these complex arrhythmia syndromes. Doing the experiments and collaborating with colleagues at research conferences in the field really ignites my interest. 

What exciting research projects are you working on?
I work as a graduate student in the laboratory of Al George, MD, chair of the department of Pharmacology, where I study cardiac arrhythmia mechanisms. It has recently been shown that mutations in calmodulin, a calcium sensing protein and regulator of the cardiac conduction system, can induce very severe arrhythmias in infants and children, thus potentiating the risk of sudden cardiac death. Although there are three different calmodulin genes (CALM1, CALM2, and CALM3) that are translated into the exact same protein sequence, a point mutation in the CALM1 gene may produce a different arrhythmia phenotype than if the same point mutation was introduced in the CALM2 gene, for reasons yet unknown. Therefore, we seek to understand what drives one clinical arrhythmia phenotype over the other and to identify any potential modifiers that influence this genotype-phenotype relationship. This work may potentially explain new pathways that lead to abnormal heart rhythms, discover modifier genes that could reveal new therapeutic targets, establish models that can be used to investigate disease pathogenesis of those affected with calmodulin mutations and test new therapies.

What attracted you to the DGP?
I really liked the idea of interdisciplinary research. As a student, having the intellectual freedom and opportunity to collaborate with other labs across various disciplines is very attractive to me. I also liked that I was able to do a dual degree program to learn more about translational research. I am in the Masters of Clinical Investigation program as well and it adds a great clinical research perspective to the basic laboratory research that I do for the DGP. Northwestern also has some great mentors who are experts in their respective fields, so knowing that I would be trained by the best was definitely a deciding factor. I also did a post baccalaureate program at the University of Chicago before I started graduate school and I knew I wanted to stay in Chicago. There is always something for me to do here in the city and I like having those options to explore. 

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?
Some of my favorite experiences at Feinberg would probably be having the opportunities to travel with my principal investigator (PI), Al George, to different research conferences that strongly focus on heart rhythm disorders. I was able to travel and present my research at the Heart Rhythm Society conference in San Francisco last May and recently at the Gordon Research Conference: Cardiac Arrhythmia Mechanisms conference in Ventura, CA. It’s such a great learning experience to attend seminars and network with leading experts in the field. Attending these conferences also expose some areas of my training that I could focus on to strengthen my skills as a trainee. Being a young scientist, I also appreciate the opportunity to present my work and receive feedback from my peers. 

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?
The faculty members I have worked with at Feinberg are phenomenal. They are very willing to help me out with my research or provide valuable training and resources to help me move forward with my studies. I love having what feels like a science family. I have worked closely on projects with Jennifer Kearney, PhD, associate professor of Pharmacology and Paul Burridge, PhD, assistant professor of Pharmacology. I have also been able to receive training from Elizabeth McNally, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Genetic Medicine and John Wasserstrom, PhD, professor of Medicine (Cardiology). My PI, Al George, is a great scientist and mentor who has taught me so much these past two years and helped make my graduate school experience fun and exciting, even if it means taking me out of my comfort zone. My skills have grown so much from the time I started graduate school to now and that’s something that I couldn’t have done without the help of the faculty here at Feinberg.

What are your plans for after graduation?
My career goal is to continue my engagement in cardiovascular research and to bridge that gap between the science of cardiovascular research and the community in an understandable way. I want to educate those affected directly and indirectly by cardiovascular disease and motivate them to live healthier lives. 

Connect with Lisa on LinkedIn.