From a young age, Morgan Winterbottom found herself enamored with science. She often fantasized about potential dream careers during her childhood, and the area represented a driving force in her life as she grew older. When Winterbottom enrolled at Alderson Broaddus University, she knew the biology program perfectly suited her goals.
While her pursuit of biology was unsurprising, selecting a career left her indecisive. As a young girl, the roles she crafted for herself varied wildly despite their common scientific roots. After experimenting in different areas and consulting professors, the kind-hearted Severn, Maryland local determined that her innate desire to help others would be best suited to healthcare.
However, Winterbottom was not finished experimenting. Though she set her heart on healthcare, there was one crucial role she had yet to explore. Research had piqued Winterbottom’s interest, although she had never considered it as a child.
“I wanted to see the research side of things,” Winterbottom said. “It’s kind of behind the scenes, but research leads into the pharmaceutical aspect of medicine.”
This past summer, Winterbottom participated in a nine-week internship through WV-INBRE that allowed her to complete graduate-level diabetes research. WV-INBRE, short for West Virginia IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, is a federally funded program that provides opportunities for biomedical research with an emphasis on chronic diseases. The program consists of a consortium between Marshall University, West Virginia University and an additional 14 partner institutions.
“I’m really appreciative of going to AB in general because I feel like I wouldn’t have had this opportunity anywhere else,” Winterbottom said. “It was so amazing to be at the small school that I love and get a big school research opportunity.”
Winterbottom conducted her internship at the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center of West Virginia University under the guidance of John Hollander, professor and vice chair of exercise physiology. Hollander’s laboratory specializes in cardiovascular research, which profoundly impacts the region.
“West Virginia and, in general, Appalachia have amongst the highest rates of diabetes incidents,” Hollander said. “As researchers at an institution of higher education and part of the Health Sciences Center, it’s incumbent on us to be not only treating the population globally but to really be thinking about our local constituent.”
According to the most recent data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, West Virginia possesses the highest adult rate of diabetes in the United States. Winterbottom’s research examined type 2 diabetic patients to see how epigenetic changes were occurring in their DNA. Through analyzing heart tissue samples from patients, they gained insight into how epigenetic signals relating to diabetes affected the heart’s genetic code. Understanding these changes and what they are could help in diagnosing diabetic patients, and potentially help discover targets for treating the disease in the future.
“In a lot of research, you use mice or other lab animals,” Winterbottom said. “The real interesting thing we did was use human heart tissue samples. Ruby Memorial Hospital was right next door to the lab, so we could collect samples from right atrial appendage tissue.”
Traditionally, patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery have a piece of their right atrial appendage removed to allow the bypass machine in the heart. This is usually discarded as medical waste. However, for Winterbottom, this novel aspect provided a more personal touch to her research.
“In using tissue from the patients here, I think that our results were influential on the people around us and the people coming to that hospital,” Winterbottom said.
Winterbottom places a heavy emphasis on helping the local population. While her time at Alderson Broaddus University opened her eyes to the unique situation faced by West Virginians, her experience in healthcare allowed her to witness these struggles firsthand.
“I volunteer at United Hospital Center’s labor and delivery section,” Winterbottom said. “I was able to be a baby cuddler for drug-addicted babies, which led me to see the effects of some of these problems.”
According to the WV Department of Health and Human Resources, West Virginia ranks worst in the nation for prevalence of poor physical health. Access to health care coverage is also at an all-time low, with Barbour and Logan counties faring the worst. Recognizing these issues at a local level led Winterbottom to reconsider her initial plans for her senior research project at AB.
“Out of my whole four years of biology, I didn’t want to do something for my capstone project that was so small-scale and just focused on students here,” Winterbottom said. “I wanted to do something that was more meaningful to me and had a bigger impact in the general area of medicine. This was the perfect opportunity to do that.”
Winterbottom’s time in Hollander’s lab gave her a newfound appreciation for research, and she believes studying both the heart and a prominent disease will prove invaluable during her experience with healthcare. She cites that while the internship strengthened her passion for healthcare and allowed her to become surer of her own capabilities, she initially struggled with feeling inadequate. Her participation entailed a steep learning curve, and as the only undergraduate student, comparing herself to other participants was difficult to avoid. However, overcoming these fears left Winterbottom with a tightly-knit network of professionals on which to rely.
“Morgan was very interested in what we were doing and integrated well with the students and staff in the laboratory,” Hollander said. “She was very reasonable and enthusiastic about anything you threw at her.”
Yi Charlie Chen, professor of biology at Alderson Broaddus University, works closely with the WV-INBRE program. He explains that conducting biomedical research can be quite expensive, but this program provides research opportunities for students that cannot be facilitated in the classroom. Winterbottom was one of two AB students to participate.
“The idea is to encourage undergraduate students from small schools who are interested in biomedical research,” Chen said. “If they like it, it can influence their career decisions or push them to do more research.”
Each year, Chen invites the WV-INBRE internship program director to speak in his classes at AB. Although Winterbottom observed these presentations several times, Chen represented the deciding factor in her participation.
“Dr. Chen really inspired me – he’s super passionate about this and really encourages students to apply,” Winterbottom said. “I actually saw the presentation twice; the first time was during my junior year. I didn’t apply at that time because I thought it was out of my realm.”
Chen’s contributions to cancer research motivated Winterbottom to explore the area, and his guidance pushed her to overcome her initial self-doubt and actively pursue the WV-INBRE internship.
“She’s worked hard,” Chen said. “She’s transformed into an outstanding student.”
Winterbottom is a senior student and will graduate in May of 2019 from Alderson Broaddus University. Following her graduation, she will commence studies in AB’s physician assistant program. However, she hopes that this experience signals the beginning of her research endeavors, not just the end.
“I don’t know whether it’s feasible or not, but I’d really like to pursue research again,” Winterbottom said. “Even in my career as a PA, I want to take time to do this.”
Lora Owston ’19