Staff Spotlight: Sami Moellmer

In our Staff Spotlight posts, we feature an Institute staff member and share with the community a behind-the-scenes through a question and answer session to learn more about their research areas, career path and goals, but most importantly recognize their great work. For our next staff spotlight, we feature Research Assistant, Sami Moellmer from Dr. Amanda McCullough’s lab. Sami was recently selected to be an ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) Foundation Scholar.

Tell us more about yourself (career path, goals, anything you want us to know, etc.)

“My name is Sami Moellmer and I grew up in Hillsboro, about 30 minutes outside of Portland. I went to college in McMinnville at Linfield University and received a B.S. in Biology. Throughout my time at Linfield, I knew I was passionate about science and was confident I would want to eventually further my education. However, I wasn’t sure exactly which direction I wanted to head in my career. I decided to apply for research assistant jobs at OHSU in order to gain valuable laboratory experience and was thrilled when I was hired in Dr. Amanda McCullough’s lab in November 2019. During my time in Amanda’s Lab I have learned so much about cancer biology and was always encouraged to explore different research focuses and attend seminars to help move me forward in my career development.

While learning about different research areas, I discovered the interdisciplinary field of biomedical engineering and knew it was the field I wanted to pursue. I decided to apply to OHSU’s Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. program in the School of Medicine and was overjoyed when I was offered admission! I will start the program in June 2022 and my research will be focused on regenerative medicine and cardiovascular research. Over the next 5 years, I will be working at the intersection of wound healing and blood biology. I couldn’t be more excited!

I recently found out I was selected to be an ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) scholar! The ARCS Foundation provides financial assistance to promising young individuals who are going to complete their PhDs in science, technology, engineering, and math. I am extremely thankful and humbled to receive this award as it will allow me to focus solely on my research with less financial stress.”

What current research projects are you working on? 

“I have worked on several projects that investigate the mechanisms of DNA repair and replication that modulate mutagenesis and subsequent carcinogenesis. Our lab uses our understanding of DNA repair mechanisms and deficiencies to identify novel targets in cancer chemotherapy. Most of my work has involved cell culture and testing combination drug treatments for synergistic interactions. In general, other members in the lab study the biochemical interactions between DNA, proteins, and anti-cancer compounds and I test the biological significance in a relevant cell model.

My main project focuses on treating breast cancer cells with alkylating agents, which cause a specific type of DNA damage called an abasic site. Then cells are then treated with anthracycline compounds which can interact with the abasic sites to form bulky structures in the DNA, or at least exacerbate DNA damage. The bulky structures in DNA have the potential to prevent cellular replication and stop cancer progression. The goal is to find an alkylating agent and anthracycline which have a combination killing that is greater than the sum of each drug alone.

The other project I am involved in looks at the role of the protein NEIL1 in the repair of DNA damage caused by the environmental carcinogen aflatoxin B1 (AFB). AFB exposure has been linked to the development of hepatocellular carcinomas and our lab has shown that NEIL1 is crucial in repairing AFB-caused DNA damage. Our lab identified common variants of NEIL1 across the human population and is investigating whether those variants lead to a predisposition to the development of hepatocellular carcinoma if the individual is exposed to AFB. My role in this project is to work with cell lines that either has a functioning NEIL1 or are deficient in NEIL1 and test their sensitivity to AFB exposure. Eventually, our lab wants to use the CRISPR Cas9 system to edit cells and create common human NEIL1 variants and characterize their sensitivity to AFB exposure.”

What do you like most about working for OHSU/Institute/occupational health research?

“Working in the institute has been a really great experience because I have been given a lot of independence in my projects, while still being supported and guided by my mentors. This independence in planning and thinking about my experiments has helped me feel confident and ready for graduate school here at OHSU. I feel a great sense of community from my fellow research assistants which makes working at the institute so enjoyable. Being an OHSU employee has taught me important laboratory skills and presented me with opportunities I never thought were possible. I am very thankful to be continuing my education here for the next five years.” 

What are your favorite hobbies outside of work? Home-life is very important to our health and well-being and is interconnected to our work-life

“I have lots of interests outside of science which help me stay balanced and motivated while I am in the lab. Living in Portland allows me to snowboard up at Mount Hood in the winter and spend my weekend hiking and going to the beach in the summer! I really enjoy being active and outside. I played soccer for 4 years at Linfield, so I enjoy playing indoor or pick-up soccer once or twice a week. During this time I get to be active and spend time with my friends, which always leaves me feeling really happy and refreshed. I love anytime I get to spend with my family and friends and I am extremely thankful for the support system I have here in Portland, in and out of work.”

Read more staff spotlights: