Spotlight: For biology wiz, it's the people


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Jeff Nirschl stepped on the football field and dominated the game.

Daniel Tranel, a University of Iowa professor of neurology, wasn't surprised. The field was located on his farm, and Tranel invited several of his students there to play football.

"Jeff played with me there and was one of the great players that excelled on the football field," Tranel said. "He's the same way in the classroom. You can tell [Jeff] to go analyze something in the lab or to go out for a long pass."

Nirschl, a 22-year-old senior will graduate holding the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' GPA record, but he's defined by a lot more than good grades and football skills. After working as an undergraduate research assistant for two years, he has developed an interest in people and considers it a priority to use his research to help them.

Nirschl works with UI Professor Chun-Fang Wu to study the effects of social interaction on the biological processes of flies.

"We have some sick flies," Nirschl said. "We study aging in flies, and these sick flies have a mutation which, in humans, causes some forms of Lou Gehrig's disease. What's interesting is when we put these sick flies with active young healthy flies, their lifespan doubles."

When he started working as a research assistant in Wu's lab, Wu was skeptical about his ability to handle the rigorous research project in conjunction with his heavy class load. But Nircshl immediately executed a cross of flies that that several graduate students had attempted and failed, Wu said in an e-mail.

What sets Nirschl apart from his peers isn't necessarily his intelligence in biology or dedication to academics, but his affinity for people. He takes his research to heart and makes an effort to help people in every aspect of his life.

A transfer student from Kirkwood Community College, Nirschl works with the university's Honors Program to aid the transfer process for other students coming to Iowa after a year or two at another school. He has set up dinners and meetings to give transferring Honors students opportunities to meet with professors and faculty in their fields.

Nirschl's interest in helping people transfers into his study of biology. Just as he's witnessed the benefits of strong social networking for transfer students, he studies the effects of personal interaction on the life spans and health of flies in Wu's lab.

"There's really something unique about the human experience and sharing that connection with someone," Nirschl said. "And to be able to say that it has a biological benefit and help people using that knowledge is just phenomenal."

He hopes to continue synthesizing his interest in people and a career in medical biological research when he studies at the University of Pennsylvania's medical science training program, in which he aims to earn an M.D. and a Ph.D.

Finding students who are well rounded enough to contribute the academic excellence Nirschl has achieved and the level of compassion he displays is rare, Tranel said.

"People are a part of me," Nirschl said. "I love research, but I want to be able to help and treat patients. Doing biomedical research, finding out what's wrong with a person and how their disease works, and then being able to take a treatment to them just synthesizes everything that's important to me."

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