Student athletes flex mental muscle in UI research labs

Leslie Revaux
Office of the Vice President for Reserach

Two University of Iowa students are discovering that the skills and training that made them elite athletes are a surprisingly good fit with another role on campus – a researcher.

“While I physically push myself to become stronger, faster, and more technically attuned on the track and in the weight room, there is no better workout gym for the mind than the research lab,” says Marissa Mueller, a junior biomedical engineering major who competes in javelin for the University of Iowa women’s track and field team.

Mueller is conducting research on the accuracy of accelerometers—wearable devices like Fitbit, or the motion-sensor built into an iPhone—to quantitatively measure physical activity, under the mentorship of Laura Frey Law, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science. “Research has made me a better athlete, and being an athlete has made me a better researcher,” says Mueller.

Not far from the training facility for track and field, another student athlete and researcher, Paula Valiño Ramos, is preparing for the 2019/2020 Iowa women’s basketball season in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

In between attending classes and training, Valiño Ramos conducts basic research in Professor of Biology Joshua Weiner’s neuroscience lab. The research team seeks to understand currently unknown features about how the human brain works, is structured, and develops.

Both students report that their dual pursuits in athletics and research require similar discipline.

“Practicing communication, time-management, and rebounding from setbacks has extensive applications in both domains,” says Mueller. “I have learned to trust my professors and the research process, just as I have trust in my coaches and athletic training.”

Valiño Ramos says that the discipline and persistence that she’s developed in order to play NCAA Division I basketball serves her well in the lab. “Things do not always work as expected the first time. Attention to detail and repetition are important for mastering every single skill.”

“One in three undergraduates participates in research at the University of Iowa by the time that they graduate,” says Bob Kirby, Director of the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates. “The opportunity to translate what they are learning in the classroom to the research setting helps students become more deeply engaged in their education, work one-on-one with faculty, and get meaningful mentorship for their future careers.”

“My future plans are still up in the air, but I know for sure that I will stay in touch with research,” says Valiño Ramos. “I would love to attend graduate school for a Neuroscience program, or maybe medical school. I am very confident to say that my research experience at Iowa will give me the preparation I need to pursue any career in science, regardless of the path I take.”

After graduation, Mueller plans to apply to MD/PhD programs and someday engineer new technologies that can help patients.

With more seriousness, she says that finding a church and campus community that serves as a lifestyle-cornerstone is the key for her. “Acting with intention and purpose lights the fire that gets the job done. In all I do, I ultimately strive to enact positive change, leave a legacy and become the best version of myself possible, as a friend, teammate, scholar and person.”

Mueller stands in front of her research poster at Research in the Capitol