Growing up in Vancouver, Washington, Anna and Heather Klug, now seniors at UW, each developed a love of math and science and a desire to pursue careers in medicine. While it’s tempting to trace their shared aspirations to the DNA they share as fraternal twins, Anna and Heather have a simpler explanation.
“I think it’s a coincidence,” says Anna in a recent conversation, drawing a nod of agreement from Heather.
Even a coincidence, though, can become something much bigger, with a little help and persistence. And the Klugs are living proof. For the last three years, they’ve been making their mark as undergraduate researchers in the Murry Lab at the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM).
Anna and Heather are among the hundreds of undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc students pursuing careers in science and medicine in ISCRM’s 130 labs located at UW Medicine South Lake Union and across the University of Washington campus.
“We got really lucky with our public school system,” says Anna, retracing her steps. “Our high school was actually very good. They offered all the AP classes. The AP teachers were really motivating people.”
“Ms. Elliott for math,” adds Heather. “And Mr. Summers for chemistry.”
Exchanging a look, Heather and Anna admit an affinity for math and science was not the only coincidence. “For math tests, we’d sit across the room from each other,” explains Heather. “And we’d still get the same things right and wrong.”
“Us learning from our mistakes together is effective,” says Anna. “But us learning from each other is not. Because we’re usually wrong in the same way.”
If Anna and Heather are good at being wrong in the same way, they show a knack for being right in ways that are similar, but – like them – not identical.
For Anna, the first step on her path to ISCRM was picking a major. “Coming into college, I wasn’t sure what major I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do something translational. That’s how I found bioengineering at UW. I was looking through majors and that’s the one that stood out for me.”
Heather took a slightly different route. “I originally intended to study bioengineering, too, because tissue engineering is really exciting, but I took one physics class and decided that I didn’t love engineering as much as I thought I did. I still loved all the biology. And I love chemistry. So mixing biology and chemistry made a lot of sense.”
Heather and Anna wasted little time putting their majors to good use.
I knew that I wanted to focus on medicine,” says Anna, with conviction. “But I didn’t want to go to medical school. I was looking for stem cell work. My concentration was in cellular mechanics and biomaterials. I like tissue culture and I knew that stem cells are the up and coming method of regenerative medicine.”
Although Anna would eventually email more than twenty professors about research positions, she locked her sights on the Murry lab. “I actually emailed Dr. Murry six times before he responded,” Anna recalls. “I’m glad he did. I wanted to do tissue engineering and I feel lucky to be in a lab with the exact interest that I wanted to pursue.”
Heather cast a wider net. “I basically wanted to be in any lab that had some sort of medical application. I was more interested in the brain than the heart. I was looking for somewhere to give me research experience.”
And, sometimes it helps to have a friends in the right places. “Anna got hired [in the Murry Lab] first,” recalls Heather. “So I knew that people were leaving because she was trained by three seniors. And it was about translational medicine, which made it a great fit for me.”
Heather is now working alongside a postdoc on a research project in her lab. Together, they are investigating metabolic effects on heart cell maturation.
“Learning how to set up a research project was a good experience and not something I could have gotten in class,” says Heather. “We could have made the experiment infinitely large, but had to get the right information out of it. So we had to decide – what variables do we want, what is our timeline, and what else do we need to alter.”
Anna also points to her project as a valuable learning experience. “My mentor got a crazy idea that I should try to make mammalian cells photosynthesize using plant cells,” she says. “While it’s been very challenging, I’ve been able to make my own experiments and protocols. There’s nothing really out there about putting plant cells inside mammalian cells. So I’ve had to design my own procedures. I had to start combining all sorts of chemicals and experiments and methods that I could think of to try and optimize getting chloroplasts.”
Even better, the chloroplast project has the translational quality that was so important to both sisters. In this case, culturing the plant cells with stem-cell derived cardiomyocytes could be a way to promote oxygen production, and as a result, regeneration of heart muscle, improving recovery from heart attacks.
Anna and Heather have no doubt their experiences in the Murry Lab have broadened their prospects.
“This position has given me research skills and workplace skills that bode well for me in graduate school, pharmacy school, traveling, whatever I do in the future,” says Heather, who plans to apply to a fellowship that would allow her to study overseas. “I’ve only been out of the United States one time. I want to explore more. I have my eyes open towards any direction this takes me.”
“I’m going to get my PhD,” says Anna. “ I think it’s really useful in science and it’s just changing so quickly. That there’s always more to learn.”
For now though, Anna and Heather are living in the moment.
“I’d say what I like most is the other researchers and the community,” says Heather. “I really appreciate the people here. I think if I didn’t enjoy the people around me I probably wouldn’t have continued research.
“It does get hard at times,” Anna adds. “And it gets discouraging. I mean, so does anything. But the people help keep me motivated, keeps things interesting and they’re really fun, so, yeah, … I’d say that’s my favorite part too.”
What’s it really like being twin sisters conducting research side-by-side in a world-famous lab?
Heather smiles. “Most of the time it’s advantageous because we’re on the same page, way quicker than other people are.”
“If we work together to multitask and get everything done it goes a lot faster,” says Anna. “Just because I know kind of what she’s thinking or how she’s going to do something.”
“Definitely. We both finish each other’s sentences and, you know…”
“It usually works out.”
Undergraduate research opportunities often become available often in ISCRM labs. Students who are interested should contact ISCRM’s Manager, Kristine Vosk, and include a cover letter stating area of research interest and a resumé.