With a brand new PhD in Biological Sciences from Michigan Tech, Robert Larson is heading for Iowa to do what he loves best: cardiovascular research. And the Portage Health Foundation, through its health sciences partnership with Tech, is helping him do it.
Larson is one of the first recipient of a PHF Graduate Assistantship that enabled him to focus on finishing the requirements for his doctorate. That helped him win the competitive Lundbeck Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the American Autonomic Society to do research with Mark Chapleau, a professor of internal medicine, molecular physiology and biophysics at the University of Iowa. Chapleau heads one of the world’s premier cardiovascular research centers.
Larson will study hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an inherited condition in which the heart muscle thickens and the heart enlarges, making it hard for the heart to pump blood and potentially leading to heart failure. Current treatments for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy focus on the symptoms—shortness of breath, chest pain and arrhythmias. Larson is looking for new treatment strategies that target the cause and development of the disease.
“I am very excited about Robert Larson joining our research team,” says Chapleau. “I first met Robert in September 2015 when he visited the University of Iowa to participate in a Postdoctoral Fellow Recruitment Forum. He came prepared to discuss his accomplishments and goals, as well as the research underway in my lab. He interacted well with members of our team, and his seminar was excellent.”
Winning awards for his research is nothing new for Rob Larson. In 2014, he received national recognition from the American Physiological Society as winner of the Central Nervous System Van Harreveld Memorial Award.
A Research Career Begins
Larson says he found his passion for research “by the back door.” A Chassell native with a BS in Clinical Laboratory Science from Northern Michigan University and a BS in Business Administration from Tech, he was working in a local hospital when Jason Carter was looking for someone who knew how to draw blood. Karyn Fay, director of Tech’s Medical Laboratory Science Program, introduced the chair of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology to Larson.
“I had no idea what he did, but it sounded interesting,” Larson recalls.
So he came to work on his MS in Biological Sciences, with Carter as his research advisor. They studied the influence of sleep deprivation on neural control of the cardiovascular system—“the interactions between brain and heart,” Larson calls it.
“Robert has been instrumental in the sleep deprivation studies our laboratory has conducted over the past 5-6 years” says Carter. “He’s a hard worker, and I know he’ll take that work ethic with him to the University of Iowa.”
High-salt Diet and Hypertension
Then Larson moved on to do his PhD with Qing-Hui Chen, an associate professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology. With Chen, he explored the basic mechanisms of neural control of the cardiovascular system by examining how a high-salt diet changes the properties of the membranes encasing the nerves that control blood pressure.
“We found that a high-salt diet increases the excitability of the neurons,” Larson reports. And when the neurons are more excited, that leads to increased sympathetic nerve activity and arterial blood pressure.
Chen was impressed with his eager doctoral student. “He works hard and thinks like a scientist,” says Chen. “I can see him in the future as a successful academic scientist and teacher.”
They also looked at underlying mechanisms of that finding, and found that dysfunction of calcium-activated potassium channels causes the increased excitability of the neurons in the brain, which is a new finding.
“The goal of our lab is to figure out what changes in the brain contribute to salt-sensitive hypertension (high blood pressure) and to find new treatments for it,” he explains.
Larson has set his sights on a career in academic research, although he knows it will bring many challenges. “Research is a highly competitive field,” he say, “but I am a highly competitive person. I’ve been successful so far, and I have no reason to think that won’t continue with strong mentorship and colleagues.”
His postdoc advisor at the University of Iowa, Chapleau expects nothing less.
“Robert’s experience and expertise in studying integrative cardiovascular physiology in humans and neural mechanisms in animal models make him an ideal match to the needs of my research program,” Chapleau explains. “His unique skill-set reflects the outstanding training he has received working with Qing-hui Chen and Jason Carter at Michigan Tech. I look forward to a mutually beneficial, productive and rewarding time working together during his postdoc training.”