Interview with Sarah Chow — “Mending Broken Hearts”
“Imagine you’re walking up a steep hill when — suddenly — you feel dizzy and develop a crushing pain in your chest. And then you realize: you have a heart attack.” Such is a dramatic opening when Sarah Chow describes her research. Heart diseases and exercises are keys to her research project.
Sarah Chow is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia. She works with a pacemaker protein (HCN channels) located at the sinoatrial node of the heart, where it controls the heart rate. This protein is regulated by a molecule called cyclic AMP: heart rate is increased when cyclic AMP binds to the pacemaker protein and decreased when less cyclic AMP is available.
The goal of Ms. Chow’s project is to study how the pacemaker protein and cyclic AMP interact. This protein-molecule interaction has remained one of the big questions in the field. To do so, Sarah uses a thermodynamic approach called isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC). This technique detects the heat released upon protein-molecule binding, allowing her to look at the mode of the interaction in detail.
Ms. Chow found that cyclic AMP binds the pacemaker protein in negatively cooperative manner: binding of one cyclic AMP molecule makes it difficult for the others to bind to the protein. “No one has actually looked at the binding specifically the way we have,” says she. “It’s a good starting point to figure out the mechanism [of heart-rate regulation].”
The ultimate goal of the project is to replace artificial pacemakers with drugs that can fine-tune the heart rate. “The problem with the [artificial] pacemakers is that you can only set them to one heart rate,” explains Sarah. This is potentially dangerous, if not just inconvenient. For example, when you go running, your heart needs to beat faster to allow more blood circulation throughout the body; otherwise you will be in trouble. “We first need to know how cyclic AMP regulates the pacemaker protein normally. Once we know that, we can change the molecule a bit and see how it affects the protein and the heart rate.”
So what made Sarah pursue the project in the first place? “I was always interested in going deeper and deeper into answering questions,” says she. Cardiovascular diseases are the single leading cause of death worldwide. By taking up a project that addresses a potential solution to this global epidemic, Sarah feels that she would be helping a lot of people. “It would be great…to increase the quality of life for those with heart diseases.”
In her spare time, Sarah has two passions: exercises and science communication. She runs every morning. Her passion for exercise fuels her motivation to enable heart-disease patients to exercise. Sarah also strives to raise awareness for science amongst the public. She actively undertakes science communications: she helps at Vancouver Science World, co-organizes science discussions at Science Online Vancouver, and hosts a science news program at the university campus radio station.
This piece was written for the Writing in the Sciences course taught by Dr. Kristin Sainani (Standford University, online). I strongly recommend this course to anyone interested in writing about science! Thanks to the four fellow classmates for taking their time in reviewing my writing 🙂