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Student Investigates Metabolism at Mayo Clinic

Skinny Genes

By Clint Kelly ( | Photo by Luke Rutan

Senior Amber Givens
At SPU, senior Amber Givens serves as a biology lab teaching assistant and grader of student work in organic chemistry.

Aspiring molecular biologist Amber Givens knew the odds. Ten percent or less of those who aspire to the approximately 120 paid summer undergraduate research fellowships offered by the renowned Mayo Clinic actually receive one. Still, the Seattle Pacific University junior was prepared, and it showed in her application. Givens was chosen for one of last summer’s fellowships and sent to Scottsdale, Arizona, for an intense three-and-a-half months of cell cultures and “mouse work.”

Her medical research was focused on better understanding the pathway of the protein MPZL3, which plays an important role in weight management and metabolism. As well as culturing cells (for which she was well qualified as one of the students who runs SPU’s cell culture room), Givens went into full quarantine (think “space suits”) to work on rodents, because the mechanism for increasing the mice’s MPZL3 gene expression was a dangerous retrovirus derived from HIV.

The research raises exciting possibilities. Scientists have found that mice with more of the gene do not gain weight, even the mice fed a high-fat diet — the equivalent of eating fast-food burgers every day. If Givens and her fellow researchers could discover how the protein functions, they could also discover new ways to manage weight and diabetes in humans.

One personally important ramification of her summer at the Mayo is how it might influence Givens’ chances of getting accepted into graduate school so that she can pursue a doctorate in biology and a career in research. In the meantime, as president of Seattle Pacific’s Biology Club, Givens started a bone-marrow donor registration drive that in two years attracted 500 University volunteers.

“I’m impressed with Amber’s curiosity and work ethic,” says Professor Margaret Diddams, who advised Givens’ Mayo Clinic application. “And I’m blown away by her authentic humility and desire to serve others.”