Student Profile: Serena Mooney

Undergraduate researcher Serena Mooney is studying how muscles function under extreme conditions to inform better health care treatment options.

Majors: Public Health Studies and International Studies

Mentor: Dr. Espen Spangenburg

Department: Physiology

Project Title: “Comprehensive assessment of mitochondrial energy fluxes of the Flexor Digitorum Brevis”

My research looks at a specific mouse muscle, the Flexor Digitorum Brevis (FDB). This muscle has been shown to function under low oxygen conditions, meaning its mitochondria must be unique compared to other muscles. My role is to map out and compare the mitochondrial functions of the FDB to a similar muscle so that any differences can be clarified and explained.

How did you get involved in undergraduate research?

My grandmother, who has always lived with me, is the reason I became interested in this research. Recently, she began to experience the debilitating effects of old age. Once strong and active, she now cannot walk around the house without an assistive walker due to muscle weakness from several of her age-related illnesses. When I saw that Dr. Espen Spangenburg’s lab focused on skeletal muscle physiology and its relation to metabolic pathologies, it was a great opportunity for me to learn more about how our muscles function under certain conditions.

Why did you choose your research topic?

When I started working in the Spangenburg Lab, I initially did little tasks to help out with all on-going projects. When I ran a pilot assay for the project that I am currently working on, I instantly became intrigued. Everything that I had learned in my biology and biochemistry classes were being applied in innovative ways. I wanted to keep going to figure out the mystery behind how this muscle functions.

What’s been your favorite part of conducting undergraduate research?

My favorite part about conducting research has been the practical application of the basic science concepts I have learned in class. I am constantly learning more and building upon what I already know. It is exciting to know that I am contributing to the ever-growing body of scientific knowledge that I may one day use in my practice as a physician.

What challenges have you faced while conducting undergraduate research?

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is learning how to deal with failure. I cannot count the amount of times an experiment has gone awry. As a methodical person, this was very difficult for me. However, I took this as an opportunity to learn how to problem-solve and I now have a skill that I can use both personally and professionally.

Why is your research important for the average, everyday person?

Heart disease and stroke were the second and fourth leading causes of death in North Carolina, respectively, in 2016 – with the higher rates of mortality concentrated in eastern N.C. counties. As an aspiring physician interested in practicing in underserved areas, ischemia-related diseases, like stroke or heart attacks, are undeniably a concern. The results of this research could potentially increase quality of life for patients and also give physicians more time to create a comprehensive plan.

What’s your ultimate goal or accomplishment that you hope your research will help you achieve?

By outlining the metabolic systems of an ischemic resistant muscle (FDB), the ultimate goal is to use this information to find a therapy to slow the rate of tissue death.

How do you feel that participating in undergraduate research has helped prepare you for life after college?

This research project has taught me to be organized and independent – both necessary traits for any career. Having to report my own results has made me accountable and has driven to me want to learn more. I am confident that I will be prepared for graduate school because of the skills I’ve gained through research.

Do you have any advice for other students interested in conducting undergraduate research?

I strongly encourage other students to participate in research that they are genuinely interested in. It’s so easy to think that you have to “check off the boxes” to get to your next professional goal; however, it ends up being a chore instead of a meaningful experience that you can learn from. While it might take some hard work to find exactly what you are looking for, it is definitely worth it in the end.