The lowly ground squirrel could be the key to unlocking new cures for blood clots, heart attacks and strokes.

University of Wisconsin-La Crosse biology professor Scott Cooper has been studying ground squirrels and their unique biology for more than a decade through grants from the National Institutes of Health. Cooper, with the help of his undergraduate students, has been investigating the chemistry in the squirrel’s blood that allows the rodent to hibernate during winter without developing blood clots.

Blood clots are a serious risk to people with heart disease, those recovering from surgery and people who lead immobile or sedentary lifestyles. Limbs left immobile for long periods, especially the legs, can develop deep vein thrombosis — a clot in a vein that can cause problems if it breaks off and travels to the brain or the lungs.

Cooper said the research idea came out of a hunch that animals such as ground squirrels, which lower their heart rate and metabolism and become immobile for long periods of hibernation, must have developed unique adaptations to protect themselves from developing clots. Over the years, he and his students have studied these unique features to better understand how they work.

Students from many disciplines work in Cooper’s lab, which has about 20 students this semester. Working in small groups, they study the squirrels using techniques from biochemistry, cellular biology and genetics, among other fields.

“We’ve taken a look at a little bit of everything,” Cooper said. “But that is good for students of varied backgrounds.”

Students do a lot of the work, which Cooper said is important, as it gives them a hands-on opportunity to practice what they are learning in the classroom. This gives them a chance to see whether they really want to work in the field they are studying, as well as good experience to put on a graduate school application or a resume.

It’s one of the reasons the National Institutes of Health’s Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has funded the program, most recently with a four-year $338,000 grant awarded in July. Application reviewers said Cooper’s program was unique among its peers both in terms of the subject being researched and also how much responsibility is put on the students working in the lab, with undergraduates often authoring research papers and presenting at scientific conferences.

“At UW-L, we think getting students involved in undergraduate research is one of those high-impact practices that get results,” said Cooper, who is also the director of undergraduate research at UW-L. “They really get to apply and understand what they are learning in the classroom.”

Senior Tyler Billman and juniors Tam Nguyen and Vanessa Mbuyi, an international student from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, make up one of the groups working in Cooper’s lab this semester. This year is the first in the lab for Nguyen and Mbuyi, but Billman worked last year with one of the graduate students to study the makeup and protein levels in the hibernating squirrel’s bones.

This year, his group is looking at platelet and other protein levels in the squirrels’ lung tissues, with the idea coming from a similar study done on mice. The hope is to better understand the animal’s blood composition and whether different organs in the body have different levels of compounds.

Nguyen said having this opportunity to get her hands dirty in the lab is fun, as the students have so much more freedom in the way they look at and tackle a problem. All three of the students hope to apply for medical school after graduating from UW-L and said the lab is great practice for the higher difficulty bar they will experience in their post-undergraduate studies.

“You learn so many different theories and techniques in class,” Nguyen said. “In the lab, you get to put it all together.”

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