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Lab work gets personal

Discovery Fellow’s research project hits close to home

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  • Story and photos by Josh Murray
  • Published: May 16, 2011
Jimmy Cole

Discovery Fellow Jimmy Cole began studying thyroid disease in professor Helen Mullen's lab just months before his mother was diagnosed with the condition.

When Mizzou freshman Jimmy Cole was accepted into the Honors College Discovery Fellowship Program for the fall 2010 semester, he found a prime spot in the lab of molecular microbiology and immunology professor Helen Mullen.

Unexpectedly he also found a source of information and insight that could help his family. A few months after Cole had begun researching thyroid disease in Mullen’s lab — while also studying it in biology class — his mother, Maggie, was diagnosed with the condition.

“It was just a coincidence that there was that connection,” says Cole, a biology and psychology major from Wildwood, Mo. “It’s interesting to have your research tie into class or to have your research tie into your family experience. For me, they all three tie together.”

Family connection

Maggie Cole has been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (also known as hypothyroidism), a condition that leads to deficiency in the production of the thyroid hormone.

The diagnosis wasn’t a complete shock. Cole’s grandmother and two of his aunts have thyroid disease, which commonly runs in families and disproportionately afflicts women.

“There are thyroid diseases in which your thyroid is overactive and diseases in which your thyroid is underactive,” Mullen says. “We study the disease in which the thyroid is underactive. In humans, that is called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and that’s what Jimmy’s mother has. Both of those diseases are female predominant — Hashimoto’s in particular. The reasons these diseases occur mostly in females are not completely understood but may in some cases be driven by estrogen.”

“It’s not a serious case,” Cole says about his mother’s condition. “The thyroid is not active enough, so she just has to take some medicine.”

Maggie Cole takes a T4 replacement, which substitutes for the thyroxine her body should be producing. In most cases, thyroid levels return to normal with proper treatment. However, thyroid hormone replacements must be taken for the remainder of a person’s life.

If the disease worsens, Maggie may have to have her thyroid removed, a process her sister already has been through.

Lab work

A few days each week, Cole works in Mullen’s lab, studying mouse models of autoimmune thyroid disease.

“There are a lot of different autoimmune diseases,” Mullen says. “The ones you hear about the most are diabetes and multiple sclerosis. However, the thyroid diseases are the most common autoimmune diseases. We hear less about them than the other types because they are more easily treatable.”

Cole performs a variety tasks in the lab, including making polymerase chain reactions (PCRs) and running gels to analyze DNA of mice to see how strongly they show expression of molecules associated with inflammation. 

As the academic year has progressed, his grasp of the research has evolved.

“Last semester, I would be doing some smaller tasks and I understood what I was doing, but I didn’t see how it fit into the big picture,” Cole says. “I’ve done more of the advanced stuff this semester, and now I can see how it all ties together.”

He will continue working in Mullen’s lab in the fall.

“Jimmy is getting to the point where he is getting consistent results,” Mullen says. “So, next fall he’ll actually have a specific question to answer. Right now he’s just helping to contribute to all the data that we are getting.”

Discovery and research

Discovery Fellows, the MU Honors College program that led Cole to the lab, gives students the opportunity to work with faculty mentors on research projects or other scholarly activities appropriate to their majors.

Students from all majors across campus are eligible. Agriculture, arts and science, business, engineering and journalism are just some of the areas in which the Discovery Fellows projects have originated.

“What makes the Discovery Fellows program unique is that it is open to all incoming first-year students,” says Stuart Palonsky, director of the Honors College. “We look at the entire campus for appropriate research pairings.”

First-semester freshmen with ACT scores of 33 or better are eligible for the program. Students are paid a stipend of $1,700 for working eight hours a week during the academic year.

“We get evaluations from both the faculty and the students involved with the program,” Palonsky says. “Those evaluations paint a picture of a very successful program.”

At the end of the summer Palonsky will retire from his position as director of the MU Honors College, after 20 years of leading the program.

Moving forward

Cole continues to research thyroid disease and looks forward to spending more time in the lab next semester. Currently the pre-med student is working with an optometry office in St. Louis; vision care is among the many health-care specialties that appeal to him.

“My interests in medicine are really broad,” Cole says. “I like pediatrics, and I’d like to shadow an orthopedic surgeon. I’ve also looked at radiology. I guess I still have some time to figure it out.”

Meanwhile, Jimmy and Maggie continue to learn about thyroid disease — Jimmy through his class work and research as a Discovery Fellow at MU and Maggie through her own fight against the disease.

“I talk to my family about what I am learning about in both my research and my biology class,” Cole says. “It is interesting to hear them say that I was telling them the same things that the endocrinologists have told them.”

Read more in:  EducationFamily & CommunityHealth & MedicineScience & Technology

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012