Undergrad’s work studies heart defects

Mikaelyn Kooyman
Mikaelyn Kooyman

Tying a knot on a heart vessel takes a steady hand. When it is a chick embryo, it takes even more concentration.
One sophomore has joined a research team on campus to do exactly that. Mikaelyn Kooyman, a sophomore in pre-med, is in her second year working with researchers studying congenital heart defects through ligating vessels on chick embryo hearts.
“One out of every 125 births has a heart defect, so there are about 35,000 a year,” she said.
These include ventricular septal defects, or VSD, aortic stenosis, vascular rings and heart murmurs.
Heart defects affect a lot of people, but Kooyman said there is still not much known about how they form. With Norman Hu of the Department of Pediatrics, Kooyman has been creating her own heart defects so they can study the repercussions. Hu has been researching heart defects for more than 15 years, and Kooyman joined with him through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.
Creating the defects is something not everyone can do. Kooyman went through training for a semester before receiving the eight dozen eggs she works with each week. She creates ligations, tying an over-hand knot around the main vessel of the heart using a microscope. Medical students have come in and not been able to do it, which makes Kooyman feel a little more valuable in the collaborative lab team.
She spends about 10 hours a week in the lab in Research Park, and has worked about 500 hours at this point. She hopes this will give her a greater edge when she enters the field.
“My name will go along with Norman’s on the published work,” Kooyman said. “To have other medical professionals read that research, it’s a big deal.”
She believes their research has found a lot about heart defects already, and she is excited to continue researching for the rest of her undergraduate career. The next steps will involve constricting the heart valve then removing the ligation after a couple days. They can test the possibilities of catching heart defects early on and fixing them through surgery.
Kooyman has learned patience through her research. She did not realize how much work goes into finding cures for diseases.
“I feel like it’s kind of never ending,” she said. “Well, there’s obviously an end, but there is also a lot that still needs to be done. Once I’m done with this new project, there’s even more to do.”
The process was not what Kooyman expected. She heard the word research and envisioned tediously staring through a microscope all day. She has instead grown to love the time in the lab and suggests all students take the opportunity to do research while in school.
“On paper you can say, oh yeah, I love anatomy and medicine, but until you actually do it, it’s different,” she said.