Feature News

North Central alumna awarded National Institutes of Health fellowship at Mayo Graduate School

Dec 02, 2016

Research into lung function during exercise has become the focus of the doctoral thesis of Kirsten Coffman ’12 and has resulted in the awarding of a predoctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

She graduated from North Central College with a major in physics and will complete her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and physiology (BMEP) at Mayo Clinic Graduate School in May 2017.

Coffman says she was “extremely lucky” to get the opportunity to perform high altitude research while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. “Members of our laboratory spent three weeks in Africa with almost 30 research subjects, studying human physiology before, during and after the climb. One aspect of the study was to investigate how individuals of different ages handled high altitude. I was able to collect data related to my thesis, experience field research, and reach the highest point in Africa all in one trip!”

Coffman is exploring the effects of healthy aging on pulmonary blood vessels, particularly during exercise. It’s an area that needs more study, she says. “The lungs—particularly the vessels that carry blood to exchange oxygen within the lungs—are very poorly understood,” she says. “Much research is conducted to understand changes in lung function with disease but very little is done to understand the ‘healthy’ aging process. Some members of the older population, who are otherwise healthy, will suddenly experience breathlessness during exertion. Much of the time the cause can’t be determined.”

The Mayo Clinic Graduate School program is relatively small, with 200 students spread across seven tracks. The BMEP track has 20 students, with just five accepted each year. “Tracks are like families. You know everyone in your program,” Coffman says.

She felt well-prepared academically for the challenges of Mayo and gained valuable experience working with Paul Bloom, associate professor of physics, on particle physics research at North Central. “However, I was not well-versed in biomedical sciences research. It took me the better part of a year to become comfortable in the lab and feel as though I would succeed as a research scientist. The strong academic base I received from North Central was a major driving factor in my ability to catch up.”

The NIH predoctoral fellowship will pay her stipend for this year, which is important because it allows Mayo to fund other students. In addition to providing experience in grant writing, the fellowship makes Coffman stand out as she applies for future positions. A post-doctoral role could be next, but her ultimate goal is to land a faculty position. “My career goal is to teach at a small liberal arts college just like North Central—I absolutely love teaching and mentoring students and want this to be the focus of my career.”