Taking science to heart

Undergraduate research inspires personal discoveries

Hometown: Derby, Vt
Major: Physics
Minor: Nanotechnology

Xavier Capaldi may never look at an omelet the same way again. Through his research on embryonic chicken hearts, he has cracked thousands of eggs to harvest their yolks.

As it happens, embryonic chicken hearts look remarkably like embryonic human hearts. Xavier's research with mechanical engineering Professor Ashok Ramasubramanian could someday be used to diagnose congenital heart defects before they occur—and to aid in finding a solution.

Xavier reports that his research has been invaluable prep for his future.

What are you studying in embryonic chicken hearts?

As it develops, the embryonic heart transforms from a straight tube into a C shape and then into an S shape. We want to determine what forces within the embryo cause that transformation—or looping—to occur. We think it’s in the way the head rotates as it develops, which causes the cervix to flex and apply force to the end of the tube. This, in turn, causes it to slip into the C and S shapes. Improper looping causes congenital heart defects. So if we can say for sure that in order for the looping to occur, the head has to rotate in a certain way, we may know in advance when someone might have incorrect looping of the heart.

What is your role in the research?

We currently model the process with a rubber tube, but we don’t actually know if the surface of an embryonic heart is as stiff as rubber. I use an atomic force microscope to measure the force curve of the heart. The microscope has a tip, which I lower until it indents the heart. The force curve is how much the tip bends in the process. This helps me determine the depth of the indentation and thus the stiffness of the heart. Professor Ramasubramanian can then use this information to make more accurate models.

The biggest challenge in working with embryonic chicken hearts?

It’s all so delicate. I perform microscopic surgery by hand, cutting this tiny heart out of the embryo. One heavy-handed probe with a tweezers can destroy everything.

How did you get involved in the project?

Professor Ramasubramanian sent out an email in search of new summer research assistants. His research is in bioengineering, yet my field is physics. But I wanted to gain research experience early on in my college career. I interviewed with Professor Ramasubramanian, who not only took me on, but also oriented my role more toward physics and working with the atomic force microscope.

That thing sounds powerful.

It is! It’s an incredibly complex device. Most students don’t learn how to use it until graduate school. I was taught how and then given time alone to practice. It’s great that Union professors trust us with the equipment. As you can imagine, that microscope costs a lot of money.

Does Professor Ramasubramanian make a good boss?

Yes, he’s taught me a lot. He essentially serves as a second adviser. He encourages me to learn certain skills that will prepare me for graduate school—LaTex, for example. It’s a document markup language for researchers. An undergraduate typically wouldn’t use it, but he knew I would need it later on since I want to continue in research. He also helps me assess graduate schools and has introduced me to programs I could do in between undergraduate and graduate school. It’s a great relationship, and he appreciates the research team. He took us all out to dinner with his family at the end of summer. I plan to continue as his research assistant throughout my time at Union.

What surprised you about doing research?

You have this unrealistic impression from books and movies that you'll go into the lab and fidget—and by morning you'll have achieved something big. There’s more of a grind than people expect. It’s not boring or mindless, but research takes a long time. Once you have all the data, there’s an analysis process. And then you finally publish findings that might be usable.

Do you now think twice before you scramble an egg?

At first I was grossed out about eating eggs, but I grew up on a farm so I had to get over it. Embryonic chicken hearts do look amazingly similar to embryonic human hearts, though. It’s incredible to think that, at one time, I looked like a chicken.

What are you driven to discover?:

Click play (above) or view on VIMEO