Anley “T” Tefera, Bernardo Zepeda and Heather Orrell are three aspiring bioengineers who have decided to pursue advanced studies at UC Merced after graduating from here in May. It seems they each know a good thing when they see it, and integrating their research in professor Ariel Escobar’s lab is a very good thing.
Although each is focusing on a different aspect, all are studying muscle contractions of the heart.
“It’s fascinating because studies are done in real time, and at various scales; the whole heart or just a single cell. Besides adding to the knowledge in the field, I am looking into possible origins of heart problems like cardiac arrhythmia and other conditions, and possible solutions,” said Tefera, whose general research area is calcium dynamics and cellular excitability. “And knowing heart problems are the number one killers in the U.S., it is nice to be part of a group that is trying to understand this organ.”
Tefera and Zepeda had the privilege of taking classes and working on research projects as undergraduates with Escobar.
“Dr. Escobar is one of the best guys in the field,” Tefera said. “His work is recognized and respected in the area. He has tremendous experience and a great lab with a lot of cool gadgets.”
Orrell is working with ryanodine receptors, which, in very basic terms, control the release of calcium to stimulate muscle contractions.
“It’s extremely interesting. How does the heart muscle contract on a molecular scale? We know that it does contract,” Orrell said, “but our research goal is to find out how it does it.”
Zepeda, who worked as a research assistant for Escobar during his senior year, is excited to continue his undergraduate work on an advanced level.
“My research deals with the cable properties of the heart,” Zepeda said. Referring to what is basically the conduction of an electrical circuit in cardiac myocytes, or heart muscle cells, his goal is to figure out what happens to that circuit and the signals it sends to the heart during ischemic conditions.
“When oxygen or nutrient levels are low, what happens then? How and why is the signal distorted or changed?” Zepeda said. “I feel that the more we know about what’s going on, the more we can prevent it from happening.”
The research is stimulating, the potential applications of their work inspiring, and thanks to the unique research opportunities at UC Merced, where they go from here is open to a world of possibilities. It is no coincidence that all three want to teach in the future.
“My experience in learning as much as I have has played a role in wanting to pass it on,” said Zepeda, who is working toward a Ph.D. so that he can become a professor, a choice he attributes to UC Merced. “It has been such a positive thing in my life. I want to help others eager to succeed, to aid their success.”