Summer in the Wet Lab

If you're walking around the third floor of Weyerhaeuser Hall and hear the mellow tones of Bon Iver, Neko Case, or The Smiths, don't worry, it's just Caleb Van Boven ’19, prepping tissue specimens for his summer research project.

“I always choose my music based on what I’m doing. If I’m cutting, I need to have steady hands. I have to be really focused,” he says. “You cut the muscle, then you have to pull it off with a tiny little brush. It’s this teeny, tiny thing, super thin. You can’t flip it or anything, or else the orientation gets messed up. So I always put on some slow indie music. Something relaxing.”

The whole vibe in the Weyerhaeuser ”wet lab”—so called because it's the one lab in the exercise science department where students and professors do lab work involving cells and tissues as opposed to living human or animal subjects—is pretty relaxed. 

Turning in the grant and getting funded was far and away the most rewarding experience I’ve had."

– Caleb Van Boven ’19

Caleb has logged 10 weeks in the wet lab since June, wearing a path between his microscope, with its slides of lab rat muscle tissue, and the computer, where photos of the tissue light up in a multitude of colors, depending on what muscle fibers he’s analyzing. One of almost a hundred students conducting independent research in the sciences and humanities through a summer research grant, Caleb secured his lab time by completing a rigorous application process last spring involving months of proposal writing and revising under the guidance of associate professor of exercise science and project leader Jung Kim. 

The grant-writing process pushed Caleb far outside his comfort zone. “It was scary, and it’s really hard,” he says. “But turning in the grant and getting funded was far and away the most rewarding experience I’ve had.”

Caleb cuts frozen muscle tissue samples with the lab’s cryostat.
Caleb Van Boven ’19 cuts frozen muscle tissue samples with the wet lab’s cryostat.

Caleb’s project investigates the effect of the enzyme MMP-9 on muscle composition. “When we’re exercising or when we’re injured, our muscles have to change in order to adapt, and that’s done through enzymes that break down different components of the extracellular matrix,” he explains. 

Building on research begun in 2014 by a visiting professor and continued by Jung and numerous students over the years, Caleb maps the muscle fibers in tissue specimens from the study’s test group and compares them to those of the control group, ultimately determining whether MMP-9 has the hypothesized effect. “At the beginning of our study, MMP-9 was the next big thing in skeletal muscle research,” Caleb says. “Fast forward to 2018, and people have moved on and are looking at completely different things.” 

Does that mean the research he’s doing is pointless? Hardly, says Caleb. In finalizing the study begun four years ago, Caleb, Jung, and others can confirm that MMP-9 plays a significant role in changes to skeletal muscle, as they thought, or confirm that it doesn’t—which is equally useful information, Caleb says. “Eliminating factors is just as important as finding new ones.”

The opportunity to contribute to the scientific community is a reward Caleb finds particularly satisfying. “There are tons of different avenues you can take from here, and the field is full of nooks and crannies that you can find novel information in.”

Someday, in one of those nooks or crannies, we may discover the key to developing medications or treatments for muscular dystrophy and disorders. But that’s the end end game, and according to Caleb, there’s plenty of work to do in the meantime. 

“In all likelihood, none of us are going to be the ones who find out what the end treatment is, so you kind of have to look at it as ‘This is my contribution to this research, maybe just to nullify something,’” he says. “But as long as you’re taking a step forward, then you’ve done your job.”

 

 

By Sarah Stall
Published Aug. 21, 2018
Photos by Sy Bean