Imagine an undergraduate pre-med student who has the opportunity to do clinical and scientific research. This is a realization for Cornell University human biology, health and society major Jacob Stein. He credits his two physician parents for his interest in the sciences and career aspiration of becoming a physician also. Focused on human compassion and empathy, Stein grew up in Philadelphia, watching his parents interact with patients. He began to realize that medicine is not only about science but also human connection.
Upon entering Cornell, Stein wanted to find a lab that balanced scientific research with medicine. He found the Anna E. Thalacker-Mercer lab, Nutritional Sciences, which has allowed him to have the best of both worlds. Stein explains, “What I like about the Thalacker-Mercer lab is that I get to gain experience in clinical research in addition to having patient interaction.”
A Clinical Research Opportunity
In a human biochemistry class, Stein discovered he had an affinity for the subject. When the professor of the course, Thalacker-Mercer, announced that she was looking for undergraduates to work in her lab, Stein saw the perfect opportunity to work in a lab that combines clinical research with basic science. He was thrilled to be selected as a member of the undergraduate research team.
“There was a lot of competition to get a position in the lab. So when I heard I got in, I was overjoyed to work in the Human Metabolic Research Unit (HMRU). And the Thalacker-Mercer lab has created a wonderful opportunity for me to engage in sciences in a clinical setting,” says Stein.
Studying Therapies for Skeletal Muscle Deterioration
The Thalacker-Mercer lab studies the biochemical processes that lead to skeletal muscle deterioration with advancing age and the progression of metabolic diseases. Stein works on clinical research studies. One study deals with the amino acid histidine—the safety of histidine supplementation and its potential anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.
Study participants receive histidine supplements and are followed for a series of months in which their vitals, blood, urine, and weight are measured. Participants can also enroll in an optional muscle biopsy study, which investigates the effects of histidine on carnosine, a molecule found in muscle tissue.
Another study in the lab investigates the effectiveness of a blueberry-enriched diet on improving skeletal muscle stem cell characteristics. Previous studies have shown that the pigment of blueberries can reduce tissue inflammation. The study encompasses older and younger women participants.
Research in the Thalacker-Mercer lab can hopefully have an impact on delaying the aging and deterioration of the skeletal muscles. Thalacker-Mercer’s nutrition-focused interventions may have an impact on the elderly, diseased, and paralyzed populations. Stein explains, “The research completed in the HMRU has the ability to change how we view our nutritional requirements and hence delay the effects of aging.”
“The research completed in the HMRU has the ability to change how we view our nutritional requirements and hence delay the effects of aging.”
Stein does data entry and processes blood and urine samples. He collects some of the data and samples himself. When he has the opportunity to take part in participant visits, he takes measurements such as weight and vitals and collects patients’ diet and sleep records.
“The work I do in the lab has been advantageous. While I learn medically related science, I have also made good connections,” Stein says.
Outside the Lab and Classroom, at Cornell and Abroad
In addition to his undergraduate research in the Thalacker-Mercer lab, Stein is a member of REACH (Raising Education Attainment Challenge), a program that allows Cornell students to connect with local K-12 students, providing academic and social support. He is also the president of the dean’s Undergraduate Advisory Council in the College of Human Ecology, which serves as a bridge between the student body and the administration in the college. Stein spent his spring semester of 2019 in a study abroad program in London. He wanted the opportunity to take a step away from pre-med classes and pursue more of the liberal arts.
Entering his senior year in fall semester 2019, Stein plans to continue his work in the Thalacker-Mercer lab to gain more clinical lab experience, and he hopes to expand his community service to other areas of Ithaca where needed. With the aspiration of bettering clinical healthcare, Stein will pursue medical school in 2020-2021.
Stein says, “I will look back at Cornell and the Thalacker-Mercer lab with gratitude for the lessons and clinical experiences I have gained.”