Ryan Doptis handles one of the pythons in Leslie Leinwand's lab. Doptis, an MCD Biology major, graduated in December. (Image: Cliff Grassmick)
Biofrontiers lab experience opens a career path for senior
After two years of working in a University of Colorado Boulder laboratory that recently gained international media attention for its work with snakes and heart disease, graduating senior Ryan Doptis has set his sights on becoming a research scientist.
Doptis, a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major from Las Vegas, will graduate on Dec. 16. He has worked the past two years in the laboratory of CU-Boulder Professor Leslie Leinwand, the chief scientific officer of CU's Biofrontiers Institute.
"At CU-Boulder I've had a lot of opportunities when it comes to getting real-world experience," Doptis said. "After two years of going through the molecular biology program, I decided I wanted to try lab work. And I really wanted to do meaningful research that wasn't the same cookie-cutter experiment every semester."
He found a perfect fit working in the laboratory of Leinwand, who is an expert in genetic heart diseases including hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes. Doptis' work involves both cardiovascular and metabolic responses to eating conducted in a very unusual animal model – the Burmese python.
The research opportunity has been very fulfilling, he said, because he enjoys working with snakes and studying how they can provide insight into new ways to think about and treat some of the most serious medical problems people face, such as heart disease.
One of the things the Leinwand lab is investigating is the process by which a Burmese python's heart size drastically increases after a gigantic meal. A python's meal can often be 25 to 100 percent of its own body weight.
"What our research focuses on is in those few days when the snake is digesting the meal, they ramp up their metabolic rate by fortyfold," Doptis said. "In doing that, their heart and their liver are able to get 50 to 100 percent larger than they are at a resting state. And after they digest their meal, they actually drop those organs back down to their resting size."
A lot of the research in the lab centers around how the pythons' heart size can change so quickly without ill side effects. Answering that question could someday lead to medical breakthroughs in the area of treating heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. When people develop certain types of heart disease, they develop something called cardiac hypertrophy, which means their heart gets enlarged. Once that happens, it's irreversible.
"These snakes are able to increase the size of their hearts, and then shrink the size of their hearts after every meal," Doptis said. "We're trying to understand the mechanism of how that can apply to possibly bring down the size of a human heart that has become enlarged."
As part of his work in the lab, Doptis applied for and received a research grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to help fund some of the python research he was working on.
"I designed an experiment and completely conducted that experiment myself, and was funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute for that experiment," he said. "I don't think that's something you can find at every university."
Once he graduates, Doptis plans to go to graduate school and work on a doctorate degree that involves lab work.
"The experience I've had here will be invaluable when I enter graduate school, because I know my way around a lab, I know how to work a lot of the equipment and I've learned how good experimental design is done," he said.
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