Quinn Recalls Unfolding Aptitude for Biomedical Engineering That Led to Research

Kyle Quinn, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, with some of the imaging equipment used in his research.
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Kyle Quinn, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, with some of the imaging equipment used in his research.

Growing up, Kyle Quinn never thought being a scientist was a realistic career path. A high school aptitude test suggested he might like biomedical engineering, so he studied it as an undergraduate student. Little by little, his interest grew and his successes mounted. Now, he's an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Arkansas and he has earned one of the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards for early-career faculty members.

Quinn earned $500,000 to support his research and teaching through the NSF's Faculty Early Career Development program, known as a CAREER award. The NSF considers CAREER awards the "most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization."

What began as a chance encounter as an undergrad led Quinn to a career using advanced imaging techniques to study health issues. His CAREER award is focused on monitoring cell metabolism over time and understanding the role mitochondria play in age-related diseases like Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disorders, cancer, diabetes and obesity.

"Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell, they're the energy producing structures." Quinn said. "We're trying to understand how dysfunction arises with age. There can be a difference between someone's chronological age versus their biological age. It's this idea that aging affects us all in different ways, and consequently, the function of our cells can change in different ways."

Quinn is looking to develop an understanding of how mitochondria change over a lifetime through novel optical imaging approaches. The hope is to unlock new information about how age-related diseases develop, which could provide clues into how those diseases could be treated or prevented.

"We don't have tools to non-invasively assess how age-related changes to our cells can occur and when they're occurring and what that means for certain diseases," Quinn said. "It's hard to tease out age-related problems versus all the other things that occur when you have a medical issue."

It's important to monitor mitochondria, Quinn said, because the structures demonstrate a variety of changes throughout the aging process.

"With increasing age, there are increasing internal stresses on your cells and mitochondria," he said. "There is an accumulation of damage to different cell components produced by highly reactive molecules called free radicals, and the mitochondria become less efficient."

"Mitochondria are dynamic. They fuse together; they break apart. The cell will cordon off dysfunctional mitochondria. But, a lot of those dynamics have been reported to change with age." Being able to track those changes accurately could provide critical information about the nature of aging.

Monitoring those changes is not easy. Even with advanced imaging techniques, there are not many tools that allow researchers to watch those changes in tissue without disturbing the cells or tissue itself.

"It's hard because there aren't a lot of tools that allow us to non-invasively characterize mitochondria, especially within human or animal tissue," Quinn said. "A lot of this work ends up being conducted with cells in a petri dish, and even then you're going to stain your cells with something, put it under a microscope and then throw it away.

Quinn uses an imaging technique that resolves faint, naturally-occurring fluorescence from mitochondria. By measuring this "autofluorescence", researchers can monitor changes in the mitochondria without disturbing the cell directly.

"We don't have to stain anything. We can non-invasively bring a microscope down onto the cell or a tissue or even a live mouse and look at the cell metabolism and assess the function of the mitochondria," Quinn said. "All these changes that have been reported by biologists to occur with aging, we can potentially be evaluating with our imaging technique."

Quinn's CAREER research is unique because it will allow him to monitor the cells in one specimen for an extended period, giving a comprehensive look at what happens to the cells as they age.  

"I don't know of any research group that has monitored the same mammal over its entire lifespan to see how their cells' mitochondria change," Quinn said. "If we can do that and say something meaningful about how their mitochondria change, I think that can be potentially really meaningful for understanding how age-related degenerative diseases develop."

The research isn't specific to one disease, and that's by design.

"This is very much a basic science type of grant — it's broadly applicable. There are all these different problems in neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, and diabetes where mitochondria can become dysfunctional, and we could have some really broad, transformative impacts," Quinn said.

A Change of Plans

"When I was growing up, it was never on my radar that I could be a scientist. It's kind of the opposite of Tim's story in some ways," Quinn said, referencing his colleague, 2018 CAREER awardee Tim Muldoon.

"I was never really super ambitious at that age," he said. "I filled out a career survey in high school about my interests, and I think biomedical engineering was at the top of the list."

In hindsight, the results made perfect sense.

Quinn's father was a mechanical engineering graduate, and his mother was a mental health professional. "Combine those and what do you get? Biomedical engineering," Quinn said.

So, Quinn, a Wisconsin native, enrolled in the biomedical engineering program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

With the highest grade point average in his high school class, he earned a Wisconsin Academic Excellence Scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin, but Quinn said he didn't apply himself fully in his early years of college.

"Then, in one of our design classes, they announced a lab was looking for a research volunteer because someone was studying abroad. I thought it would be interesting, and I wanted to get some extracurricular experience that I could put on my resume. That was in Karyn Kunzelman's Lab." Kunzelman is now a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maine.

That time, Quinn said, was transformational.

"I found out I had an aptitude for research," he said. "I enjoyed the experimental side of things, coding and analyzing data. I found out I liked biomechanics as a field."

After a couple of semesters, Quinn was accepted to a summer internship program at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. With a dozen students from across the country, Quinn learned from leading biomedical researchers. He also learned what he was capable of.

"I think that was a pretty transformative experience. That was where I realized I was just as good at this stuff as the kids from Harvard and Johns Hopkins," Quinn said. "I think that was what really turned me on to research, and from then on, I knew I wanted to go to grad school."

From there, he joined the ranks of Ivy League researchers as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in Beth Winkelstein's lab. Winkelstein is now vice provost for education and the Eduardo D. Glandt President's Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. A successful and productive graduate career led Quinn to consider academia, but first he needed to expand his research.

"In biomedical research, everyone does a postdoc stint for three to five years before they go to a faculty position," he said. "You really need to be able to differentiate yourself from your advisors, bring different skillsets together and have a distinct research program as a faculty member."

Personal reasons led Quinn to the university where he conducted his postdoctoral research. Quinn's wife, Jennifer Mortensen, was beginning her doctoral studies at Tufts University outside Boston (she's now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arkansas), and Quinn applied to positions to remain close to her. And, Quinn said, the research was a natural fit.

"I found a lab at Tufts working to assess collagen organization using multiphoton microscopy. That collagen imaging, and its potential applicability to biomechanics, was what got me to apply to Irene Geogakoudi's lab at Tufts (Geogakoudi is now a professor of biomedical engineering), but then I got kind of sidetracked by metabolic imaging when I was there. Now, my lab mainly does the metabolic imaging. Most of the equipment that's now in my lab are things that I'd never touched before going to Tufts. I gained a completely different set of skills, and I found more success."

Quinn earned an NIH F32 fellowship to pursue his research at Tufts, and after three years, knew he wanted to pursue a faculty position. He was encouraged by the collegiality of his Tufts faculty members and set out to find an institution with a similar culture.

Quinn had never been to Arkansas, but his wife encouraged him to apply.

"Her family had taken summer vacations on Lake Ouachita, and she had very fond memories of that. She said 'It's beautiful, you should just apply.'"

Once he was in Fayetteville for the interview, Quinn was sold.

"I was looking for a small, collegial department," he said. "At Tufts, there were about eight faculty members, they all seemed to like each other. That was what really stood out when I interviewed at Arkansas — it was the same feeling."

So Quinn, who had recently received the prestigious K99/R00 Pathway to Independence award, took a year to wrap up his research at Tufts and moved to Fayetteville.  

'Ally-ship' through outreach

Like all NSF CAREER awards, Quinn's grant includes funding to support outreach activities.

Quinn's project will be to expand the summer camps offered by the Department of Biomedical Engineering, which are designed to expose K-12 students from across Arkansas to science, with a particular focus on groups that are typically underrepresented in engineering.

"We'll be able to expand the camp and create more opportunities for more people," Quinn said. "We've been emphasizing including people from underrepresented groups in the STEM fields, and that's definitely important to me. I owe my career path to three amazing women: my Ph.D. advisor, Beth Winkelstein at Penn; Irene Georgakoudi, who was my postdoc advisor at Tufts; and my wife.

"I've seen some of the challenges they've faced — the biased teaching evaluations, things said to them by colleagues — I'm very much aware of that. I want to be as much of an ally as I can to my students and trainees, and to our biomedical engineering campers. That's what really drove the outreach component," Quinn said.

'Something you keep on your CV'

For Quinn, earning the CAREER award was a milestone.

"For a young faculty member, it's the best thing you can get from the NSF," he said. "This is something you keep on your CV for the rest of your life. People in different disciplines recognize what it means."

What it means for Quinn is a chance to dive deeply into research that could have transformative applications, while also giving back to the next generation of scientists.

Raj Rao, head of the department of biomedical engineering at U of A, said the award is a reflection of Quinn's dedication to research, teaching and "ally-ship."

"I am extremely proud of Kyle's CAREER award and it did not surprise me a bit that he received it," Rao said. "It is a true recognition of his sustained efforts to integrate research and education. I believe that his immense strength lies not just in his ability to develop and sustain an exceptional research group but more in his ability to establish collaborations with multiple investigators across diverse disciplines on campus, other universities and industry partners.

"His motivation to engage with the community and the next generation of researchers, especially those underrepresented in STEM is to be commended. Being an ally is exactly what Kyle is good at: his demeanor, his creativity, his attention to detail and his ability to nurture collaborations is critical to growing the department. His life experiences make him an excellent role model for researchers who strive to strike a work-life balance and will motivate many in the next generation," Rao said.



Nick DeMoss, director of communications
College of Engineering
479-575-5697, ndemoss@uark.edu


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