Struckman awarded American Heart Association Pre-doctoral Fellowship

Posted: February 15, 2022

Congratulations to Heather Struckman for recently being awarded a 2-year American Heart Association (AHA) pre-doctoral fellowship.

Ms. Heather Struckman

Ms. Heather Struckman, BS, MS, is a graduate student in the Nanocardiology lab under Dr. Veeraraghavan, who is applying confocal microscopy, super-resolution microscopy (STORM, STED), transmission electron microscopy, and optical mapping (high speed imaging of electrical signals from live hearts) to investigate the structural basis of cell-to-cell electrical communication in the heart. She was recently awarded a 2 year pre-doctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association for her project titled "Uncovering the Nanoscale Basis of Atrial Fibrillation to Develop Novel Antiarrhythmic Therapies". It is noteworthy that this is the third fellowship she has won in just over 3 years of graduate training, having previously been awarded a 1 year OSU College of Engineering graduate fellowship (2018-19) and a 3 year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (2019-22). In addition, she also won a $20,000 Strategic Initiative Grant from the Microscopy Society of America for her outreach efforts.  Heather has thus far published 7 peer-reviewed papers including 2 as first author and has a number of first-authored papers in preparation / in review at high impact journals. Her first lead-authored paper, which was published in Microscopy & Microanalysis was both featured on the journal cover (Feb 2020 issue) and awarded "best paper in the biological sciences" for 2020 by the journal. She has also presented 23 abstracts at scientific conferences including 12 platform presentations.

Project Summary: Atrial fibrillation (AF), which is the most common cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), affects over 6 million people in the US alone. Although not immediately life-threatening, AF progressively worsens, and increases patients’ risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Current AF therapies manage symptoms but do not target the underlying structural changes. This is due to the fact that little is known about the structural basis of AF on the ultrastructural and protein levels, especially at the earliest stages of the disease. Thus, we urgently need to understand how nanoscale structural changes contribute to functional phenotypes in early-stage AF in order to develop effective therapies. Notably, AF patients experience abnormally high levels of fluid leak from their blood vessels, which can damage nanoscale structures that allow heart muscle cells to communicate with each other. Indeed, we previously found just this type of nanoscale damage in the hearts of AF patients. In a recent study led by my fellow OSU BME graduate student, Ms. Louisa Mezache, we discovered that abnormally high fluid leak from blood vessels can render a previously healthy heart susceptible to AF in just one hour. In order to develop new treatments against this disease process, I am working to: 1) Understand the roles played by different types of nanoscale structures involved in communication between heart muscle cells, and 2) Develop new peptide drugs to protect them from damage. I am pursuing these goals using cutting-edge light and electron microscopy techniques, and high-speed functional imaging of hearts to understand the heart’s structure from the scale of single molecules all the way up to the whole organ level. In collaboration with BME faculty member Dr. Seth Weinberg and his postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Nick Moise, we published in 2021 the first-ever realistic 3D structure of contact sites between heart muscle cells and demonstrated how nanoscale structure modulates the heart’s function. Going forward, this project could uncover the mechanisms underlying the earliest stages of AF and lead to the development of entirely new types of treatments designed to protect key structures at the nanoscale.

Congratulations, Heather!