Nicholas McCarty routinely “goes where no man has gone before.” 

At least that is how the University of Iowa junior describes being a part of a research team.  He reasons that “every time you conduct an experiment, you are serving to advance the realm of human knowledge. Ultimately, we hope to use these experiments to improve the lives of others.”

McCarty, a biochemistry and microbiology double major from Geneva, Illinois (who is also pursuing certificates in Clinical and Translation Science and Entrepreneurial Management), has been working as an undergraduate researcher since the first semester of his freshman year.  He contacted several faculty members and set up interviews to talk about research, ultimately choosing to accept a position in  Professor E. Dale Abel’s lab because he “was interested in the prevalence of diabetes and heart disease from a familial and national perspective and wanted an opportunity to work with complex biological systems.”

The Abel Laboratory, a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center located in the Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building, focuses on molecular mechanisms leading to cardiac dysfunction in diabetes and the regulation of myocardial growth and metabolism by insulin signaling.  McCarty explains that “type 2 diabetes is characterized by the failure of essential tissues to respond to insulin, which is produced in the pancreas.  We are seeking to understand the active role of proteins in the insulin-signaling pathway, which will provide substantial insight regarding how the heart works under conditions of impaired insulin signaling.”

While the Abel Lab has several different investigations in progress, McCarty’s focus has been directed primarily on studies examining the role of insulin signaling in regulating the cardiovascular system. “Essentially,” he says, “we deleted (or knocked out) insulin receptors in the adult heart, which resulted in a loss of insulin signaling. We hypothesized that insulin receptor proteins preserve cardiac structure and function in the adult heart. These ongoing studies could provide insight regarding the important connection between insulin and the function of the mammalian heart.” McCarty has recently begun a new project which focuses on the regulation of glucose metabolism in platelets for his Honors thesis in biochemistry. 

“I love the studies that I have been working on.  They offer very practical clinical insights that I can draw upon in a future biomedical research career in order to help patients,” McCarty says.  As of now, he plans on pursuing either a PhD in biochemistry or an MD/PhD, stating that his experience in the Abel Lab has affirmed these aspirations.

McCarty thinks that once students get involved in research and start working with “thinkers of the highest caliber,” they often decide to make a positive change in their own scholar development.  “For me,” he says, “research has actually helped me achieve greater success in the classroom - not only because it has provided me with experiential knowledge and has challenged me to think critically, but also because it has given me a mindset about where I want to go and the requirements that are necessary to enter a career in basic science.” 

He is well into his professional development, admitting “I have gotten good at talking about my work. This ultimately comes from spending time in the lab and working under excellent mentors, though. Oftentimes, discussing my projects with others has led to new hypotheses, connections, and recognition.”

It isn’t that simple, of course.  McCarty is intensely dedicated to research. He spends about 20 hours per week in the lab during the academic year (and more during the summer), all while balancing coursework as a member of the University Honors Program, an ICRU Research Ambassador, an Iowa Biosciences Academy and Latham Scholar, and extracurriculars like founding and leading The Global Education in Medicine Initiative (GEMI).  GEMI is a student organization that focuses on both domestic and international public health issues and recently assisted in providing public health education and relief efforts in El Jazmin, Costa Rica, for which they were recognized with a Hawkeye Leadership and Service Award. 

Not only does he like the research he’s doing, he really enjoys telling others about it.  McCarty routinely takes advantage of opportunities to present.  He is a familiar face at the Fall and Spring Undergraduate Research Festivals here on campus and seeks out funding in order to attend professional meetings of interest.  These efforts have taken him to San Antonio, Boston, and San Diego to present his work at several national conferences. His dedication has been rewarded in the form of fellowships.  McCarty spent the 2014-2015 academic year working as an ICRU Research Fellow and this past summer was selected for two prestigious fellowships.  He was one of twelve students (from an international application pool that included first year graduate and medical students) to be chosen as a summer fellow of the Endocrine Society.  The American Heart Association also selected McCarty as one of ten from the Midwest for their summer undergraduate fellowship.

Considering how much McCarty has gotten out of his research experience, it isn’t surprising that he would like to pay it forward.  “I would love to become a [principal investigator] and provide students with the same opportunities in research and mentorship that I have been fortunate enough to receive.”  McCarty says that Dr. Abel is highly committed to the mentoring of undergraduates in his lab. “He offered me a research position in his laboratory despite the fact that I had never taken a college level course at the time. He took a chance on me and has overseen my development, offering highly thoughtful feedback on hypotheses, presentations, and applications, all while pushing me to excel and become an independent thinker. He is truly an outstanding mentor.” 

“Research,” McCarty says, “gives me a unique and personal connection to important scientific questions. While it can be frustrating at times, the personal and professional development that it provides is priceless.  It’s the best thing I’ve done in my undergraduate career so far.”  

Dr. Abel says of working with McCarty, "it has been a pleasure hosting Nicholas in my laboratory. He is a remarkable young man, who has displayed a strong passion for research. His motivation and energy is infectious. I have high expectations that he will achieve his goals to become an independent biomedical researcher."   

Considering what he’s accomplished already during his time here at the University of Iowa, we think so too.


Story/Video by Lindsay Marshall