Montana State University

Young researcher with heart for service makes sought-after discovery

February 14, 2006 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Robbie Mealer in the lab at Montana State University. (MSU photo by Jay Thane).   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -- Robbie Mealer grew up watching his father use his skills to help people. Inspired by his example and the respect he receives as a plastic surgeon, Mealer resolved to serve people, too. But the younger Mealer hopes to use his own strengths and help others as a medical scientist.

"The joy of scientific inquiry is what drives me to do research," Mealer said, adding that the possibility of helping others makes research even more rewarding.

Twenty years old and a December graduate of Montana State University, Mealer became involved in research as an undergraduate student and ended up finding a new way to measure electrical impulses in cell membranes. The brain sends messages with electrical impulses, and Mealer's invention makes it possible to watch those impulses move from cell to cell.

Mealer was chosen to explain his findings at the upcoming meeting of the Biophysical Society in Salt Lake City. He will join student presenters from such prestigious institutions as the University of Oxford and Cornell University at the group's annual meeting from Feb. 18-22. The Biophysical Society has nearly 8,000 members around the world and gave Mealer a travel award to attend the meeting.

"This is a big deal for any scientist, and the program committee had no idea that he was an undergrad when they selected his work," said Thom Hughes, Mealer's advisor and mentor.

On March 2, Mealer will also explain his research during a Dessert Dialogue in Bozeman. The event is sponsored by the MSU Friends of the Library in cooperation with the MSU Alumni Association. In the meantime and throughout the spring, Mealer will continue working in Hughes' lab. Then he will leave to simultaneously pursue an M.D. and Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

"He was not a very common undergraduate," Hughes said of his former student who majored in cell biology and neuroscience.

Hughes came to MSU after more than a decade at Yale University and said he has advised only three students in his career to pursue medical and doctoral degrees at the same time. Mealer was one of them. Mealer's project to measure cell activity was a "Hail Mary" project that succeeded, Hughes noted. He added that Mealer is persistent, self-motivated and good at finding independent solutions. When an experiment didn't work out for nine months, Mealer kept going until he figured out the problem. Then he redid the experiment from scratch.

"That's what happens in research situations," Hughes said, "But it really sorts out the scientists from the wannabes."

Mealer said his research project injects DNA into cells, causing them to glow bright green as an electrical impulse passes through them. Imagine watching cells light up one by one like a string of neon lights on a Christmas tree.

"Robbie invented a new way of looking at protein interactions, and this led to the discovery of a new, genetically encoded, voltage sensor for studying the nervous system," Hughes said.

Predicting a big response when Mealer presents his work to the Biophysical Society, Hughes said biophysicists dream of finding a way to optically record the activity of many cells at the same time.

"Everybody and his brother will jump on it," Hughes said of Mealer's research.

Mealer is the son of William and Carol Mealer of Bozeman.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu