BME Buckeye Highlight - Heather Struckman

Posted: July 18, 2022
Heather Struckman, Swiss Alps in Bern, Switzerland
Heather on the Alps in Bern, Switzerland

Help us give a big shout out to Heather Struckman for her outstanding accomplishments throughout her graduate studies in the Department of Biomedical Engineering here at OSU. Heather is a PhD student in the Nanocardiology lab working under Dr. Sai Veeraraghavan

Dr. V says "Throughout her tenure as a graduate student at OSU, Heather has consistently performed exemplarily and proven herself to be an emerging scientist of uncommon talent. Earlier this year, she won a predoctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association, her 3rd in under four years. This summer, she presented three abstracts, including an oral presentation at the highly prestigious International Society of Heart Research conference in Berlin. Before visiting collaborators in Bern, Heather attended the Rising BME Scholars Regional Conference at Washington University St. Louisa - all within a 2-week period. What impresses me most about this is that Heather is able to be such an excellent ambassador for OSU BME and our science and engage in high level conversations with potential collaborators. I simply cannot overstate how much I enjoy working with Heather, my pride in her impressive achievements and my excitement for her future career as an independent scientist!"

Heather explains that the Nanocardiology lab, as are many other labs, are trying to recover from the drought of scientific social interaction due to COVID-19. Thus, we have ramped up our presence at scientific meetings this year. Collectively, we have presented our work at four national/local level conferences so far in 2022, and are scheduled to present at an additional five conferences later this year. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to present my work at the Biophysical Society 66th Annual Meeting (three poster presentations), Heart Rhythm Society Annual Meeting (one oral and one poster presentation), International Society for Heart Research (one oral and two poster presentations), and Rising BME Scholars Regional Conference at Washington University St. Louis (one poster presentation) and I’m looking forward to upcoming presentations at Microscopy & Microanalysis 2022 (one invited Biological Sciences Tutorial talk and one oral presentation), and the Liquid Phase Electron Microscopy Gordon Research Conference (one poster presentation). These conferences have provided an amazing platform to present my work to diverse scientific audiences, establish a personal rapport with other scientists including potential future postdoctoral mentors, and foster various collaborations within our scientific niche and beyond. The plans for the remaining part of the year and next year is to focus on publishing these results and compiling my doctoral dissertation. Beyond that, I plan to pursue postdoctoral training with the ultimate goal of an independent career in academic research and encouragingly, I have already received multiple offers for postdoctoral positions at OSU as well as other institutions.

At these meetings, I have been presenting three main story arcs that I have been developing during my PhD:

The first focuses on a novel indirect approach we have developed for correlative light and electron microscopy (CLEM) coupled with multiscale computational modeling (collaboration with the Weinberg lab) to expand the physiologist’s reach into the nanoscale. Our indirect CLEM [iCLEM] is a low-cost, high throughput alternative to conventional CLEM approaches with high throughput and extensive quantitative capabilities. This approach is enabling us to systematically investigate the structural underpinnings of electrical propagation in normal and diseased hearts.

The second focuses on applying iCLEM to uncover previously unappreciated roles for nanoscale structure in determining regional differences in the transmission of electrical impulses through the heart, in particular between the upper (atria) and lower (ventricle) chambers. Using iCLEM, we have achieved the first-ever quantitative assessment of ultrastructure and molecular organization within intercalated disks, specialized structures responsible for cell-to-cell communication in the heart. We are now using functional imaging approaches to understand the functional implications of these structural properties, while our collaborators, Dr. Seth Weinberg and his postdoc, Dr. Nick Moise, are using multiscale modeling to uncover underlying mechanisms.

The third story focuses on a collaboration with the lab of Dr. Prez Radwansk investigating how changes in nanoscale structure contribute to disease, specifically, an inherited heart rhythm disorder (long QT syndrome) resulting from a single amino acid defect in a key regulatory protein called calmodulin. High resolution imaging studies revealed unexpected nanoscale alterations to protein assemblies responsible for beat-to-beat sodium and calcium dynamics, which underlie life-threatening disruptions in the heart’s rhythm. We identified specific sodium channel protein, NaV1.6, as a lynchpin in this disease mechanism and determined that it can be targeted through genetic or pharmacological means to safely and effectively prevent such rhythm disturbances.