Sarah Bortvedt

Hometown: Portland, Oregon
University of Portland

If there is one word that best describes Sarah Bortvedt, Cell & Molecular Physiology graduate student, it’s driven.  Sarah did her undergraduate work at the University of Portland, but she spent a formative summer in New York doing research with Bill Wolfgang at the Wadsworth Center.  The project involved using Drosophila melanogaster (also known as fruit flies) to study potential Huntington’s disease therapies.  She loved her project so much that when the summer was over she took it back to Portland with her and set up her own research space so she could continue the work while she was in school.  “I had to set up a lab because there were no fly facilities at University of Portland.  It was a lot of work – I had to get permission to do this, find space, go get fly food from another facility anytime I needed it, and do all the experiments myself.  I really liked it though – because it was my own thing I didn’t mind all the extra work and long hours.”  That experience doing research was a defining moment for Sarah who had been equally interested in doing research and in studying abroad in Spain that summer.  “In the end I decided to forgo the Spain trip and just hope that I would get in to one of the summer research programs.  Luckily, I did.  For me, that was it.  I don’t know if I would be here right now if I had gone to Spain instead.”

Sarah says that she learned to be independent from a very early age.  She was homeschooled from the 3rd grade through middle school and that arrangement gave her a lot of control over her own schedule.  “If I was really efficient and got all my work done in the morning, then I had time to go out and play or pursue other hobbies the rest of the day.  I think this carried over into my personality and my work style in the lab.”  Sarah was also able to turn her homeschool experience into an outreach opportunity when she got to UNC for graduate school.  During her first year while she was navigating course work and finding a thesis lab home alongside her peers, Sarah also made the time to launch a science workshop program for local homeschooled students. “My original idea was to do a science fair for homeschooled kids, but as I talked to the parents and learned what their needs were, it was clear that a more in-depth workshop would be best.”  Sarah recruited a classmate, organized a monthly curriculum, found some space at the Carolina Center for Educational Excellence (CCEE), and was able to raise enough money from UNC and from the parents of the children participating in the workshops to offer unique, hands-on lab experiences to middle school children.  “The most popular topic was dissecting a fetal pig.  Each individual student chose an organ to research and did a little presentation about the organ.  Then in groups of three they did the dissections and tried to find the different organs.  They really liked it.”  Sarah carried out the program through her second year and has since handed it off to other BBSP students who have an interest in outreach.   Additionally, because of Sarah’s efforts the CCEE realized that the homeschooled population was underserved and they have started offering regular science classes for homeschoolers.

After the homeschool project, Sarah’s interest in teaching continued.  She found an amazing number of opportunities to get teaching experience during graduate school and her PI Kay Lund has played a big role in this.  Sarah said “Kay is a really supportive mentor and has encouraged all the career goals I have.” Kay arranged for Sarah to give guest lectures in an upper level undergraduate course and gives her the opportunity to guest lecture in a graduate course that she teaches.  Sarah also participated in NC DNA Day  as an ambassador and helped to design one of the modules for the DNA Day on Demand video series.  She took advantage of the Summer College Teaching Series offered through the TIBBS professional development program and she did a teaching college science course that is affiliated with the School of Education.  Sarah sought out these experiences because her original goal was to secure a position teaching in a small liberal arts college.  When asked now about her plans, she is not as sure.  “I might want to do more research than teaching.  I’m still trying to figure that out.”

Perhaps part of Sarah’s dilemma is that she has such an exciting research project with the potential for a broad impact.  Her main focus in the lab has been to understand the insulin receptor in the intestinal epithelium.  The insulin receptor is important for regulating insulin and glucose metabolism and changes in insulin receptor signaling have  been implicated in diabetes and other metabolic disorders in humans.  Early on Sarah showed that loss of insulin receptor in the intestine may lead to higher weight gain and fatty liver in mice that are fed high fat diets, suggesting that intestinal insulin receptor’s function may be important to protect against insulin resistance and obesity.  She also proposed the novel idea that the insulin receptor might have an important role in intestinal stem cell aging and in aging-induced intestinal dysfunction.  Sarah’s PI Kay Lund said “Sarah’s ideas and preliminary data were instrumental in the success of a new 5 year R01 from NIH funded last year on intestinal stem cell aging and the insulin/IGF axis. That’s a major contribution made by an exceptional graduate student to the larger and longer-term goals and success of the lab.”  More recently, Sarah has forged a collaboration with John Rawls’s lab at UNC using state-of-the-art approaches with fluorescent lipids to directly visualize fat absorption in mice lacking the insulin receptor. Using this system, she will be able to see whether insulin receptor loss leads to altered lipid absorption or handling, which will bring her one step closer to dissecting the mechanism by which dysfunction of this pathway contributes to heart disease and insulin resistance.  Her work has been recognized by several awards including a North Carolina Impact Award through the Graduate School and funding from UNC’s Translational Medicine Training Program.  Sarah says “This project is interesting to me because of the global impact the work could have.  Obesity and diabetes affect so many people yet the mechanisms and causes of insulin resistance are largely unknown.  Understanding the role of the insulin receptor in the intestinal epithelium could establish a novel role for the receptor in lipid metabolism that would ultimately affect many lives.