From Grad Students to Faculty Members
Three Former Graduate Students Find a Home Within MCW's Faculty
(l-r) Alison Kriegel, PhD '08, and Caitlin O’Meara, PhD '11, earned doctoral degrees from MCW's Graduate School and later joined the faculty in MCW's department of physiology.
Medical College of Wisconsin assistant professor of physiology Caitlin O'Meara, PhD '11, first roamed the institution's halls as an undergraduate student interested in zoology, botany and cell biology. "A family friend had been in MCW's Summer Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) and had a wonderful experience," Dr. O’Meara says. "With my family in nearby Wauwatosa, it was a natural opportunity for me to explore biomedical research."
Alison Kriegel, PhD '08, MCW assistant professor of physiology, found her connection at a similar point in her academic career – when an undergraduate immunology professor told her about a major genetics grant for which MCW was recruiting staff to implement. "At the interview, I was absolutely fascinated by the opportunity to apply genomic analysis to physiological phenotypes, and I was hired in a support staff role," Dr. Kriegel shares.
Teresa Patitucci, PhD '16, MCW assistant professor of anatomy, worked as a technician in MCW's department of pediatrics (infectious disease).
Drs. O'Meara, Kriegel and Patitucci all later chose to attend MCW's Graduate School and earned their respective doctoral degrees. "I really liked the culture at MCW, and the interdisciplinary program was a great fit for me as I was still deciding what to specialize in," Dr. Patitucci notes.
Drs. O'Meara and Kriegel each studied physiology, but with distinct research interests. Dr. O'Meara's advisor was personalized medicine pioneer Howard Jacob, PhD (who served on MCW's faculty from 1996-2016). "I focused on the genetic mapping of kidney disease and really enjoyed learning with the other graduate students, especially our tightly-knit cohort in physiology," Dr. O'Meara says. "We worked together well and challenged each other constantly."
After working as a staff member with Andrew Greene, PhD, the Dr. Robert D. and Dr. Patricia E. Kern Professor in Biotechnology and Bioengineering, and professor of physiology at MCW, Dr. Kriegel knew that she wanted him as her Graduate School advisor. "One thing I admire about Dr. Greene is his openness to new ideas and approaches, including those that I wanted to explore in cardiovascular physiology," Dr. Kriegel comments. "I also enjoyed the high-level research environment in which I was supported but also expected to be on the front edge of the field."
Dr. Patitucci's primary focus was her research into the role that structural brain cells play in spinal muscular atrophy, which she undertook with advisor Allison Ebert, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology, neurobiology and anatomy. Dr. Patitucci also worked with Todd Hoagland, PhD, professor of cell biology, neurobiology and anatomy, to train in anatomy.
"After I had proven my organization and time management skills, Dr. Ebert trusted me to meet my research obligations while learning anatomy and later serving as a teaching assistant for Dr. Hoagland," Dr. Patitucci recalls. "Many of my classmates joined MCW's department of cell biology, neurobiology and anatomy after rotations. It made it fun to come to work every day because we could discuss our experiments and help each other solve problems."
The opening of MCW-Central Wisconsin led to a unique opportunity for Dr. Patitucci to apply her anatomy skills and love of the classroom.
"I really liked the MCW family atmosphere, and it was just such an exciting prospect to be involved in launching a new medical school campus, as well as to run an anatomy lab," she says. This was not her first time choosing to leap at the chance to help build something new. During her time as an MCW technician, Dr. Patitucci helped a research lab determine protocols and processes for providing clinical testing services. She also was Dr. Ebert's first graduate student, and thrived on helping build physical and digital research infrastructure to acquire and store their shared experimental data.
Dr. Patitucci joined MCW-Central Wisconsin's faculty on June 1, 2016, and is enjoying guiding its first class of students through their anatomy training. "A unique aspect of MCW-Central Wisconsin is the small class size, which allows me to more easily adapt to individual learning styles and incorporate activities like a prosection, in which I dissect a body donor while students observe and ask questions."
For Dr. Kriegel, graduate school classes and lab rotations were a time to dive deeply into a lifelong interest in physiology. "For as long as I can remember, I have been captivated by learning how our bodies work. Rather than memorizing facts, graduate school helped me explore physiology at completely new depths and allowed me to start to see gaps in scientific understanding – and how I might be able to help fill them in," she shares.
A particular series of experiments conducted for Dr. Kriegel's dissertation project remain vivid in her memory due to the influence they had on her future investigations. She was looking into cardiac samples from rats and had tested them for messenger RNA (mRNA), which are molecules created by an enzyme that reads the genetic information contained in DNA. This mRNA travels to another part of the cell to be decoded as the blueprint for new proteins.
"When I compared mRNA results to actual protein levels, I saw a mismatch between the types and amount of proteins that I had hypothesized based on expectations from the mRNA analysis. It became very clear that there were intermediate steps in the process of genes becoming expressed as proteins," Dr. Kriegel notes.
She conducted a postdoctoral fellowship with Mingyu Liang, PhD, professor of physiology and MCW Eminent Scholar, to continue investigating those intermediate steps – which include the binding of microRNA (smaller non-coding RNA molecules which, when attached to mRNA, modify how mRNA are interpreted or prevent them from serving as protein instruction manuals altogether, known as "silencing").
Dr. Kriegel joined MCW's faculty in 2012. "I felt like MCW was the right choice. It was where I matured as a scientist. I knew I liked the way people thought about solving problems, and I felt like the physiology department had what I wanted in terms of collective expertise, collaborative spirit and elite infrastructure. You have to have the right tools to answer big scientific questions," she recollects.
After Dr. O'Meara earned her PhD, she moved to Boston and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. The lab she joined there focused on heart regeneration. "We know that some organisms, such as the zebrafish, can regenerate damaged heart tissue throughout their life cycle, and others, like mice, have strong regenerative capabilities shortly after birth. The central goal of the subdiscipline is to understand how cardiac regeneration works in order to find methods to stimulate the human heart to conduct some its own repairs after a heart attack," she says.
During her time in Boston, Dr. O'Meara realized that she could expedite her progress by using the genetic techniques she had mastered at MCW. She returned to MCW as a faculty member in August 2016. "With the genetics expertise and infrastructure in place, MCW is the best, and maybe the only, place to do the research that I want to do," Dr. O'Meara states. Returning to MCW also allowed her to reestablish previous collaborations, such as with Brian Link, PhD, professor of cell biology, neurobiology and anatomy, and MCW Eminent Scholar, who studies cell biology using zebrafish models.
All three MCW graduate students-turned-MCW-faculty members credit mentorship and the institution's research environment as key to their professional development and decisions to join MCW's next generation of scientists.
Dr. Caitlin O'Meara:
"Everyone at MCW is happy to share knowledge and techniques."
Dr. Teresa Patitucci:
"I feel fortunate to have had amazing mentors to look up to early in my career – in Dr. Ebert, Dr. Hoagland and our campus dean in MCW-Central Wisconsin, Dr. Lisa Dodson."
Dr. Alison Kriegel:
"MCW really feels like a second family to me, and the culture of collaboration helps introduce me to many aspects of science and medicine beyond what I study, which has led to new questions for my laboratory to explore."
– Greg Calhoun
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