In 2019, Jacob Stechmann was a U.S. Marine deployed to Syria.
“I was a machine gunner,” he said, adding that circumstances of combat meant that he was occasionally pressed into service by Army and Navy Special Forces medics to help treat casualties among the Kurdish population.
“They would bring some of us over if they needed help,” Stechmann said. “Not anything serious, but we got to do some of the little things.”
Those “little things” included treating a gunshot wound to the arm and replacing bandages of people who had suffered shrapnel wounds to the stomach.
“That was my last year in the Corps,” Stechmann said. “That was the deployment that kind of opened my eyes up to medicine: getting to see Army doctors and surgeons work on Kurdish allies coming in after certain incidents.”
In 2022, Stechmann is a student-researcher at William & Mary, studying the function of blood vessels in Robin Looft-Wilson’s lab. He was one a dozen students awarded a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) by the American Physiological Society (APS).
The SURF fellowships supports students conducting research in the laboratory of an APS member. Looft-Wilson, a professor in William & Mary’s Department of Kinesiology, studies artery function and its role in cardiovascular health. She says Stechmann is a good addition to her lab and is well deserving of the SURF fellowship.
“I loved that he had a military background. I’m from a military family, and I know the work ethic, so that that was certainly a plus,” Looft-Wilson said. “He expressed a strong interest in research and said he wanted to go into medicine.”
Stechmann transferred into William & Mary from J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College. He expects to get his bachelor’s degree in 2024 — and is already considering his post-William & Mary options. Depending on how he wants to balance research and patient care, he will choose among programs leading to an M.D., a Ph.D. or an M.D./Ph.D. combination.
“I know that many M.D.s will do research and they don’t have the Ph.D. attached,” Stechmann said. “I don’t think I’ve talked to enough M.D.-Ph.D.s and M.D.s-only yet. But yeah, if I want research to be a big part of my career, then maybe M.D.-Ph.D. is something that I want to look at.”
He’s getting plenty of opportunity to see how he likes conducting research in Looft-Wilson’s lab. They’re studying constriction in very small blood vessels. Lately, Stechmann has been cannulating mesenteric arteries, those vessels that supply blood from the aorta to the intestines.
“This is a microsurgery, so Jacob does all of this under the microscope,” Looft-Wilson explained. “The cannula are teeny-tiny. And as you can imagine, you’ve got these very fine tipped forceps and you’re in this tiny little dish, the dish is about this big,” making a thumb-forefinger circle.
Each cannula Stechmann uses is roughly twice the diameter of a human hair. Working in the tiny little dish, peering through the microscope, Stechmann slips the artery over the teeny-tiny glass cannula (“Kind of like putting a sock on a foot,” Looft-Wilson says) and ties it down. Stechmann explained that once he has an artery cannulated, the lab adds a chemical to stimulate constriction of the artery.
“We study artery function at the molecular level, and also at the tissue level,” Looft-Wilson explained. “We look at contraction and relaxation of the artery, which is very important for controlling blood — both blood pressure in the body, and blood flow to individual tissues.”
She went on to say that her lab is researching the molecular signaling in the sympathetic nerve stimulation pathway.
“You know: your fight or flight response,” Looft-Wilson said. “When you’re stressed or when you exercise, your sympathetic nervous system is activated. And one of the things that happens is sympathetic nerves release a neurotransmitter that causes the blood vessels to constrict.”
The APS SURF fellowship carries a stipend to support his summer research in the Looft-Wilson lab. It also provides for Stechmann to attend the APS international meeting, the Physiology Summit, in April 2023.
“Thousands of scientists will be there,” Looft-Wilson said. “Jacob will be presenting a poster, probably in a couple of different forums, including one highlighting undergraduates.”
Mingling with the M.D.s, Ph.D.s and M.D.-Ph.D.s at the Physiology Summit will give Stechmann the opportunity to hear different points of view on the research-patient care professional spectrum. It’s another of the many advantages the SURF fellowship offers.
“At a very basic level, the fellowship allows me to really dive deep and research and understand the process that is backbone of science — to understand how it actually works and how these results are determined and presented and shared among colleagues,” Stechmann said. “I think it just really opens me up to the experience in general. And as for my future, I’m sort of debating as how much I want research to be a part of my career, and I think this will be perfect for seeing how I enjoy it.”
Joseph McClain, Research Writer