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Biological engineering student secures prestigious Ivy League research internship

Jimmy Winkelmann is one of only 12 students to earn a spot at the HST-Wellman Summer Institute for Biomedical Optics in Massachusetts.

Most engineering students interested in research know that getting a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) internship is an important step forward. When Jimmy Winkelmann started to make plans for his last summer before senior year, he applied to several REUs in the field of biomedical optics.

He was accepted to only one — the HST-Wellman Summer Institute for Biomedical Optics. This institute is a joint program by the MIT-Harvard Health Sciences and Technology division and the Wellman Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, with support from the National Science Foundation. Participants perform research, attend seminars led by experts in the field and participate in professional development workshops.

“It’s definitely going to be awesome to work in a Harvard- and MIT-funded lab and see all the advanced equipment,” Winkelmann said.

Winkelmann has worked with John Viator, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, since the summer of 2011. He’s working on a research team that is fine-tuning a laser-induced photoacoustic method to detect melanoma cancer cells in blood samples.

Around the same time he was accepted to work in the lab, Winkelmann’s father was diagnosed with melanoma. “It’s given me a personal connection to the work we do in the lab,” Winkelmann said.

Being accepted to work in the lab took a while — Winkelmann had been interested in the research Viator was doing since his sophomore year.

Viator said he first met Winkelmann in a computer programming class when the parody brand of North Face created by Winkelmann, “South Butt,” was getting attention.

“I think Jimmy is an unusual young man,” Viator said. “It was remarkable how a relatively young person was handling this international notoriety in such a mature way.”

That maturity, his work in the class and Winkelmann’s persistence led to Viator accepting the undergraduate to work in his lab. Viator said Winkelmann has been a great addition to the research team.

“He’s come up with very creative ways to solve problems,” Viator said. “He’s pretty unique in matching creativity with more traditional measures of intelligence.”

Only 12 students are accepted to the Wellman research internship program each year. Winkelmann will be doing research with Seemantini Nadkarni, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Nadkarni’s work focuses on optical detection at the early stages of plaque buildup in arteries, among other biomedical optics areas.

Winkelmann said he wants to bring what he learns back to apply to the research he’s currently doing with Viator.

“I hope having a better understanding of optics will help my research here [at Mizzou],” Winkelmann said. “I want to share everything I learn and bring it back here.”

Viator noted that the Wellman Center was in the top two in terms of prestige in the field of biomedical field and said Winkelmann would certainly learn a lot.

“He’s going to learn new methods and that new information is going to mix around with everything he’s learned here and he’s going to be able to come up with even more creative solutions,” Viator said. “Our lab will definitely benefit, I have no doubt about that.”

In addition to doing research, Winkelmann is the historian of Tau Beta Pi, on Engineering Student Council and a member of the Biomedical Engineering Society. He’s also a Phi Kappa Phi member.

Although he said he doesn’t know if he wants to be a physician, Winkelmann said he’d like to do a program that combines medicine and engineering after he completes his undergraduate work. “Since I’m doing biomedical engineering — learning how the body works and getting a better understanding of the human body is definitely important,” Winkelmann said.

The internship is a nine-week program. The students are housed in the MIT dorms. Winkelmann said he is looking forward to that and the chance to spend time in Boston.

“I really hope to advance my understanding of optics and also make more connections with researchers and professors there,” he said.



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