Mentors & Projects for Research Track Students

This list offers examples of research projects that may be available to RESEARCH TRACK students. 


Peter Arvan, MD, PhD

Lab focus: Protein Secretion pathway, endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress, hormone deficiency

Experience required: Lab experience always helps!

Project description: Our projects focus in the thyroid gland (thyroid hormone) or in pancreatic islets (insulin)

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Daniel Beard, PhD

Lab focus: Research interests include: (1) Cardiac energy metabolism (2) Oxidative metabolism and energetics in skeletal muscle (3) Regulation of coronary blood flow (4) Etiology and sequalae of hypertension.

Experience required: Prior work in a research lab is desirable. Some computing experience would also be useful but not necessary.

Project description: The project is focused on making measurements of cardiovascular response to Valsalva and posture change in human subjects (patients and healthy volunteers) to assess cardiac mechanics and autonomic reflex function.

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Jimo Borjigin, PhD

Lab focus: Establishing the electrocardiomatrix (ECM), a new technique invented in the Borjigin lab, as a new tool for clinical diagnosis of cardiovascular diseases (including ischemic stroke).

Experience required: Each student will be trained following their hiring. Dedication, responsibility, and attention to details are traits required for this project.

Project description: Analysis of biomarkers for increased stroke risk. The project will analyze ECG data from both healthy and patients with cardiovascular disorders to identify biomarkers associated with their disorders using the ECM technique. Our immediate goal is to establish the utility of ECM in a planned participation in an ongoing clinical stroke trial.

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Christian Burgess, PhD 

Lab focus: We are interested in mapping the neural circuits that underlie fundamental behaviors, like sleep and feeding, and determining how these circuits affect learning and sensory processing in cortical networks.

Experience required: Neuroscience course work, undergraduate research experience

Project description: We are interested in mapping hypothalamic circuits that drive sleep, feeding, and motivation. The project would use tools such as rabies-based trans-synaptic tracing, to establish the neuroanatomy of the circuit, and optogenetics in mice, to establish the function of different hypothalamic projections. 

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Brian Carlson, PhD

Lab focus: In my lab we have two ongoing projects: 1) Patient-specific computational modeling of the cardiovascular system in health and heart failure using traditional clinical measures 2) Electrophysiology modeling of induced-pluripotent stem cell derived cardiomyocytes as a platform for drug testing.

Experience required: Some coding in Matlab would be helpful but not necessary.

Project description: With limited coding and math experience a student could gather retrospective clinical data on a specific type of heart failure (example; Pulmonary hypertension) and utilizing our existing analysis workflow generate a deep-phenotyping profile f that type of HF. With more coding and math experience a student could tune and/or modify an existing model of an induced stem cell derived cardiomyocyte to experimental data from my collaborators in Madison or at George Washington University.

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Patrice Fort, PhD, MS

Lab focus: A major focus in our lab is the development of strategies to treat retinal neurodegenerations, including diabetic retinopathy. One of our objectives is to investigate the function and regulation of crystallin proteins in the adaptive responses of retinal cells during chronic disease states such as diabetes.

Experience required: none specified

Project description: [One] of our projects uses proteomic and immunohistochemical analysis to evaluate the impact of diabetes on the expression of retinal crystallins in humans. Our goal in this project is to confirm the potential of crystallins for developing novel therapies to prevent neurodegeneration under stress conditions.

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Todd Herron, PhD

Lab focus: My laboratory is focused on cardiovascular regeneration using patient specific induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). Working in my laboratory students will acquire skills related to stem cell culture maintenance, cardiac directed differentiation, high throughput electrophysiology screening, biomarker analysis and bioengineering. Bioengineering approaches include 2-dimensional monolayer studies as well as 3D cardiac organoid development. We utilize these approaches to better understand cardiac developmental processes, to create human cardiac models for in vitro study, for personalized toxicity screening and for development of novel regenerative medicine therapies.

Experience required: None specified

Project description: There are two primary research projects that students may work on. One involves study of extracellular matrix and signaling in bioengineered cardiac monolayers and 3D organoids. This project utilizes human bioengineered cardiac tissues to understand mechanisms of heart disease, for toxicity screening and for study of cardiac developmental processes. The second project involves the development of acquired heart failure models in vitro using iPSC derived cardiac tissues. Genetic causes of heart failure are easily recapitulated in vitro using patient specific iPSCs, however the study of more acquired forms of heart disease-such as ischemic heart failure-is just now beginning. We are working towards recreation of acquired heart failure using in vitro bioengineered models, in this way we plan to create healthy patient specific heart muscle in a dish as well as aged, ischemic hearts in a dish.

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Megan Killian, PhD

Lab focus: We are interested in the vertebrate musculoskeletal system and the mechanisms by which the tendon and its attachment to bone grows and adapts to mechanical loading from skeletal muscle.

Experience required: None, will train.

Project description: We are interested in the role of metabolism and hypoxia in the development and growth of tendon and tendon-bone attachment. We use a range of approaches including cell culture and genetically-modified mice to evaluate functional roles for genes.

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Lisa Larkin, PhD

Lab focus: The purpose of our research is to design, fabricate, and evaluate the structural and contractile characteristics of three-dimensional (3-D) engineered tissues containing myotendinous junctions (MTJ) and neuromuscular junctions (NMJ), two of the principal tissue interfaces required for a functional musculoskeletal construct.

Experience required: None, will train.

Project description: Musculoskeletal tissue engineering.

Lab website:


Jun Hee Lee, PhD

Lab focus: We focus on diverse physiologies including growth, development and aging that are controlled by signal transduction networks. Recently, our research has revealed that Sestrin, a stress-inducible protein, is a physiological regulator of mTOR complex 1 (mTORC1) signaling, and that loss of Sestrin can cause various chronic mTORC1-associated pathologies, such as fat accumulation, insulin resistance, mitochondrial dysfunction, cardiac arrhythmia and muscle degeneration, in diverse model organisms including Drosophila and mice. These phenotypes are quite similar to those associated with obesity, aging and lack of exercise, which are currently some of the major public health issues facing our society. We expect that further research on mammalian Sestrin-family proteins may provide a novel way to attenuate aging and prevent or treat age-associated diseases in humans.

Experience required: Basic molecular biology and genetics background.

Project description: (1) Effect of Sestrins on exercise and mobile capacity. (2) Identification of new autophagy mediators in Drosophila system. (3) Molecular mechanisms underlying hepatoprotective function of Sestrins in mouse liver.

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Scott Leiser, PhD

Lab focus: The Leiser lab studies the biology of aging, focusing specifically on how changes in stress response and metabolic pathways can be manipulated to affect the aging process. We utilize a translational approach, using large-scale assays in invertebrate nematodes to develop and test specific hypotheses in mammalian systems, and then using interesting findings in mammals to test hypotheses in worms.

Experience required: Basic molecular biology experience and basic knowledge of genetics.

Project description: One potential project is to develop a screen to identify novel genes involved with increasing resistance to toxic stress. Once identified, the gene would then be tested for a role in promoting health and longevity, and for where it fits in with known stress and longevity pathways.

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Peng Li, PhD

Lab focus: Our laboratory is interested in understanding the molecular and cellular basis of the neural control of breathing, and how this process fails in diseases, such as sleep apnea and sudden infant death syndrome.

Experience required: Prior experience with mouse handling is preferred.

Project description: We utilize a combination of cutting-edge molecular genetic and neurobiological approaches in mouse models to dissect the physiological and the emotional control of breathing, and the mechanism by which these inputs are integrated to generate certain breathing rhythm and pattern.

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Malcolm Low, MD, PhD

Lab focus: We study the development of the hypothalamus using mouse models and embryonic stem cells that can be differentiated in vitro into hypothalamic -like neurons. Our major focus is on the proopiomelanocortin gene that plays a fundamental role in the control of energy metabolism and body weight.

Experience required: Experience handling mice and/or tissue culture

Project description: Analysis of the effects of viral knockdown or knockout using CRISPR of particular transcription factors in differentiating ES cells or ongoing analysis of embryonic and fetal mice that have Cre-mediated disruption of transcription factors at different developmental stages

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Costas Lyssiotis, PhD

Lab focus: The growth of a tumor, just like the growth of a cell or an organism, requires nutrients and a means to convert nutrients into energy and the basic building blocks that support life. These metabolic processes are frequently deregulated in cancer cells to facilitate growth and enable survival. The Lyssiotis laboratory uses a multi-disciplinary approach encompassing methods in chemistry and biology to define how metabolism is rewired in cancer and then to employ this understanding in the design of targeted tumor metabolism-based therapies.

Experience required: None Indicated

Project description: “Metabolic Networks in the Tumor Microenvironment”

The main focus of the MIP Master’s Thesis project(s) will be to explore how the heterogeneous cancer, stromal and immune cell populations in a pancreatic tumor coordinate their metabolism to support the survival and growth of the tumor. This will involve techniques in biochemistry, analytical chemistry and mass spectrometry-based metabolomics using human and murine models of pancreatic cancer.

Members of the Lyssiotis laboratory work in a highly collaborative research environment with leading experts in immunology, pancreatic cancer biology and oncology. Our goal is to motivate and train fellows across disciples to address new and challenging problems in cancer and metabolism.

For more information: @LyssiotisLab (Twitter)

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Ormond MacDougald, PhD

Lab focus: We investigate how adipocytes throughout the body develop, function, and interact with other cell types near and afar.

Experience required: Lab experience and a desire to create new information.

Project description: We are interested in the role of adipocyte genes in adipogenesis and metabolism. We use a range of approaches including cell culture and genetically-modified mice to evaluate functional roles for genes.

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Tristan Maerz, PhD

Lab focus: Our primary research area is the pathogenesis of post-traumatic osteoarthritis following joint injury, with a specific focus on the trafficking of stem and progenitor cells following injury and how these cells modulate the onset of joint degeneration.

Experience required: none specified

Project description: Cellular and molecular mechanisms of post-traumatic osteoarthritis. mesenchymal stem cell migration and chemotaxis. Rotator cuff pathology, treatment, and healing. Quantitative morphological imaging of bone and articular cartilage. Non-invasive molecular imaging of inflammation and matrix degradation.

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Daniel Michele, PhD

Lab focus: Muscles from muscular dystrophy patients and mouse models with mutations in the dystrophin glycoprotein complex also show marked sensitivity to contraction induced injury. This is in part thought to be due to a structural role for the complex in stabilizing the sarcolemma during mechanical stress. Muscle has developed a remarkable ability to repair the sarcolemma after injury, a process that is mediated in part by the protein dysferlin. Dysferlin is mutated in patients with LGMD 2B and Myoshi myopathy. We have developed methodologies to watch the membrane repair pathway activation in real time using live cell microscopy and transgenic mice expressing GFP reporter constructs that show the localization and orientation of dysferlin in the muscle fiber membrane. We are utilizing these mice to study the mechanisms of how the membrane repair pathway is regulating following experimental and physiological muscle injury.

Experience required: Previous cell culture or microscopy experience is a plus.

Project description: We are using live cell microscopy approaches in isolated muscle fibers from mice, and human cell derived engineered muscle tissues to study and compare how muscles repair membrane injuries in skeletal muscle and heart tissues. The project is aimed at studying how repair mechanisms are activated at the wound site, and how injury propagation through fibers or into neighboring coupled cardiac muscle cells temporarily uncouple normal excitation contraction coupling leading to muscle contractile dysfunction.

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Sue Moenter, PhD

Lab focus: Understanding how the brain regulates the reproductive system and thus fertility. Mentoring of students is stressed, including rigorous research training, critical reading of the literature, and written and oral communication.

Experience required: None required as students will be trained. Students must be comfortable with animal research (mouse). Attention to detail, good communication skills, ability to work as part of a group are required.

Project description: Your project will involve electrophysiological recording of action potential firing from neurons in brain slices to understand an aspect of the neuroendocrine control of fertility. An example is how a mouse model for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) changes activity of a specific type of neuron.

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Scott Pletcher, PhD

Lab focus: Neural control of aging in Drosophila

Experience required: None specified

Project description: Identify and map neural circuits involved in motivation and reward and characterize their impact on lifespan and health in advanced ages.

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Ling Qi, PhD 

Lab focus: Protein folding and degradation in animal models in health and disease

Experience required: none specified

Project description: characterizing animal models lacking Sel1L in a specific cell types, biochemical studies of SEL1L and HRD1 disease mutants, and many more...

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William Rainey, PhD

Lab focus: My group researches the cellular, biochemical, and molecular mechanisms that regulate adrenal steroid hormone biosynthesis and applies the findings to human adrenal diseases. Once such disease, Primary Aldosteronism (PA), is the main cause of endocrine hypertension and the most common adrenal disease. My laboratory takes a bench to bedside approach to 1) defining the molecular mechanisms that cause PA, 2) improving diagnostics to facilitate PA screening, and 3) developing the cell and mouse models that improve our understanding of PA.

Experience required: Interested applicants must have at least some research experience.

Project description: Students would take-on research projects that apply genomic and steroid metabolomic approaches to improve the understanding of primary aldosteronism or other adrenal diseases.

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Juilee Rege, PhD 

Lab focus: Our lab investigates the genetic causes of adrenal steroid excess disorders such as Primary Aldosteronism (PA, aldosterone excess) and Cushing’s Syndrome (CS, cortisol excess) with basic and translation research approaches. While PA, is the main cause of endocrine hypertension and the most common adrenal disease (1 in 30 adults), CS is an amalgamation of several disorders such as obesity, dyslipidemia, hypertension and diabetes among its many manifestations.

Experience required: Some previous wet bench experience in a basic science research laboratory is required.

Project description: Students would be involved in projects that 1) delineate the genetic causes of PA and CS using molecular biology techniques on patient tissue samples, 2) improve diagnostics to facilitate PA and CS screening using the state-of-the-art liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry to quantify steroids in patient serum, and 3) develop in vitro models that improve our understanding of PA and CS using established adrenocortical cell lines and primary adrenal cells.

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Michael Roberts, PhD

Lab focus: Our lab aims to determine the cellular, synaptic, and network mechanisms used by neural circuits in the auditory midbrain and thalamus to extract and encode important features of sounds.

Experience required: none specified

Project description: Our approach combines patch clamp electrophysiology, optogenetics, genetically engineered mice, and viral transduction. Through this work, we seek to identify methods for restoring the function of auditory circuits for individuals with hearing disorders or hearing loss.

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Thomas Sanderson, PhD 

Lab focus: Research in the Sanderson lab is focused on understanding brain damage caused by ischemic insults during cardiac arrest, ischemic stroke, and neonatal hypoxia/ischemia. Ongoing mechanistic studies are focused on uncovering novel pathologic mechanisms of inner mitochondrial membrane proteins involved in mitochondrial dynamics, quality control, cristae maintenance, and cell death execution. These studies utilize novel cell and small animal models of brain ischemia in transgenic mice to evaluate mitochondrial dysfunction. A second area of focus is the development and clinical translation of neuroprotective therapies that modulate the activity of mitochondria to reduce brain injury. Pre-clinical large animal studies are ongoing to evaluate a novel therapeutic strategy that limits mitochondrial hyperactivity and prevents ROS production following brain ischemia. Ongoing studies supported by the NIH and DoD are focused on investigating the mechanisms of this therapy through continued testing in large animals, along with regulatory testing of human therapy devices that can bring this treatment to the clinic.

Experience required: none specified

Project description:

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Santiago Schnell, DPhil (Oxon), FRSC

Lab focus: The Schnell lab investigates complex biomedical systems comprising many interacting components, where modeling and theory may aid in the identification of the key mechanisms underlying the behavior of the system as a whole.

Experience required: Students familiar with calculus, dynamical systems theory, and computer programming will be preferred.

Project description: Our primary research interest is to use mathematical, computational and statistical methods to design or select optimal procedures and experiments, and to provide maximum information by analyzing biochemical data. Much of our work focuses on protein aggregation and fibrillation, which is the underlying cause of protein folding diseases, such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's disease and cataract.  Protein folding diseases are triggered by the inability of the cells to cope with inherited misfolding-prone proteins, aging, metabolic or environmental stress.

For potential projects, please visit the Schnell lab research page.

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Yatrik Shah, PhD

Lab focus: The major goal of our research program is to determine the molecular mechanisms by which oxygen sensing transcription factors regulate gastrointestinal homeostasis, inflammation and cancer. Cellular oxygen level is an important systemic signal that modulates metabolic activities and disease in the liver and intestine. Low cellular oxygen also referred to as hypoxia is observed in several gastrointestinal diseases such as non-alcoholic and alcoholic fatty liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease and liver and colon cancers. Regulation of hypoxia-mediated genes is dependent on the nuclear transcription factor, hypoxia inducible factor (HIF). HIF signaling is critical in the adaptive response to low oxygen levels by activating genes involved in metabolism, angiogenesis, cell survival and iron metabolism. Using the latest in mouse transgenic technology we have developed novel animal models to study accurately the role of oxygen sensitive transcription factors in the liver and intestine. These studies have revealed new pathways that have not previously been associated with hypoxia.

Experience required: Will train. Must be willing to work with animals.

Project description: Exploring the role of oxygen signaling in intestinal cancer. With a focus on one of these three projects – (i) The role of hypoxia inducible factor (HIF) in iron metabolism, (ii) The role of intestinal epithelial-elicited inflammation in cancer progression, or (iii) The role of HIF in regulating systemic glucose and lipid metabolism

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Susan Shore, PhD

Lab focus: My lab studies processing of auditory information in the cochlear nucleus and higher central auditory structures in normal and noise-damaged systems. Consequences of cochlear damage include neural plasticity changes that induce tinnitus, hyperacusis and auditory processing problems in noisy environments. Methodology includes extracellular recordings, tract tracing, immunocytochemistry and behavioral assessment of tinnitus, hyperacusis and signal detection in noise, and optogenetics.

Experience required: Some lab experience including quantitative analyses is desirable.

Project description: Projects are available in any of the above listed areas depending on the student's background and interest.

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Xin Tong, MD, PhD

Lab focus: Lipogenic factor ChREBP in non-alcoholic liver disease

Experience required: PCR and gel electrophoresis

Project description: Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common chronic liver disease, affecting 10-30% of the general population. About 20% of NAFLD patients transition from simple steatosis to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and eventually progresses to cirrhosis and liver failure. So far, epidemiology studies suggest a strong association between fructose overconsumption and the prevalence and severity of NAFLD. However, the risk factors for fructose-rich diet-associated NASH remain largely unknown. Our team is using a combination of molecular/biochemical tools and tissue-specific knockout mouse models to study the roles of two isoform of lipogenic factor ChREBP in the liver during the pathogenesis of NASH in response to fructose-rich diet feeding.

Lab website: Not available.


Matthias Truttmann, PhD

Lab focus: The overall goal of our laboratory is to determine the impact of post-translational protein modifications (PTM) and chaperone regulation on proteostasis in the context of aging and aging-associated diseases. We are particularly interested in a novel PTM, termed AMPylation, that negatively regulates the activity of heat shock protein 70 (Hsp70) family proteins. We employ numerous genetic, biochemical as well as behavioral approaches in conjunction with several model systems (Caenorhabditis elegans, mice, primary human tissue) to elucidate how PTMs control chaperone activity and regulate proteostasis. We further seek to generate heavy-chain only antibody fragments (VHHs, nanobodies) to characterize and manipulate specific components of the proteostasis machinery both in vitro and in vivo.

Experience required: Each student will be trained following their hiring. Dedication, responsibility, and attention to details are traits required for this project.

Project description: Projects will be designed based on the student's interest and could include: 1) the generation of novel nanobodies against C elegans and human proteins, 2) the establishment of novel genetic tools for C elegans research and 3) joining a running project focusing on chaperone function, protein aggregation, neurodegeneration and aging.

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Michael Wang, MD, PhD

Lab focus: We are investigating the molecular basis of disease of small blood vessels of the brain. This process is thought to cause stroke and dementia in a substantial population and does not yet have effective treatments. One focus is to characterize abnormal forms of the NOTCH3 protein that cause the genetic disorder CADASIL. Our experiments utilize a range of techniques including molecular biology, biochemistry, cell biology, and animal modeling.

Experience required: A strong desire to learn and flexibility of thinking are the major requirements.

Project description:

A. To identify amino acid residues in NOTCH3 that result in pathological protein transformation.  This will utilize molecular and cellular techniques.

B. To characterize behavioral, brain structural, and physiological changes in mice that produce altered NOTCH3 protein. This will utilize molecular analysis and animal neurological assessments."

Lab website:


Brendon Watson, MD, PhD

Lab focus: Neocortical network dynamics; Basic function in normal brain and role in psychiatric disease

Experience required: none specified

Project description: Exploring neocortical structure-function; cortical networks during sleep and wake cycles; or antidepressant action in mammalian systems.

Lab website:


Jun Wu, PhD

Lab focus: Obesity is essentially a disorder of energy balance, in which intake exceeds expenditure. The profound health consequences associated with obesity emphasize the importance of developing effective therapeutic interventions. My work focuses on a recently identified form of fat cells, so-called “beige cells.” Genetic manipulations that create more of these fat cells in mice have strong anti-obesity and anti-diabetic effects.

Experience required: Some prior lab experience is preferred.

Project description: Further understanding of beige fat biology is required to determine the role of human beige fat in energy expenditure and its value as a potential target for intervention. The isolation of beige adipocyte opened up a brand new field, we aim to elucidate 1) the molecular regulation of beige fat function, 2) the therapeutic potential of human beige fat and 3) the developmental origin of beige precursors. These ambitious aims will bring together leading laboratories to investigate the function and regulation of this new type of fat cells

Lab website:


Shawn Xu, PhD

Lab focus: We investigate how animals detect and process sensory cues — such as temperature, touch, light and chemicals — and the influence these sensory stimuli have on behavior, and on genetic programs affecting health and longevity.

Experience required: none specified

Project description: Our lab studies sensory biology, including mechanosensation, thermosensation, chemosensation, photosensation and nociception. We focus on: • Sensory transduction: Identifying novel sensory receptors and channels that sense temperature, touch, chemicals and light, and investigating how they regulate sensory signaling and behavior • Sensory processing: Identifying neural circuits and synaptic mechanisms underlying sensory behavior and drug dependence • Sensory regulation of aging and longevity

Lab website:


Lei Yin, PhD

Lab focus: The Yin lab is interested in the physiology and pathology of liver metabolism and liver metabolic diseases, such as Alcoholic liver disease and diabetes. Both genetic mouse models and in vitro hepatocyte culture are currently used in the lab to address the impact of dys-regulation of molecular circadian clock on the susceptibility of alcohol feeding on liver injury and liver lipid metabolism. Yin lab is currently developing a protocol to use CRISP-CAS9 system to generate liver-specific knockout and knockin mouse models for specific clock gene.  

Experience required: Experience working in the lab during college will be desirable.

Project description: The project will examine the cross-regulation between E4BP4 and PPARalpha pathway during hepatic ER stress. E4BP4 is the circadian output transcription factor. Our previously studies showed that E4BP4 potently suppresses hepatic hormone Fgf21 during feeding state. Our further analysis suggests that E4BP4 could be an important suppression of hepatic fatty acid oxidation pathway by inhibiting PPARalpha, which is the major regulator of hepatic fatty acid oxidation. The project will address the following questions: (1) At the molecular level how does E4BP4 suppresses PPARalpha transcription activity; (2) Is E4BP4 required for PPARalpha suppression during hepatic ER stress, including alcohol feeding and sepsis.

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