Monday, December 11, 2023

Drew Voigt’s decision where to attend graduate school was as easy as kicking a soccer ball into an open net.

The native of Bloomington, Minn., picked a winner when choosing to attend the University of Iowa, where his wife, a native of Davenport, Iowa, had begun medical school the previous year. He enrolled as an MD/PhD candidate in the UI’s Medical Scientist Training Program and Graduate Program in Biomedical Science (Molecular Medicine).

Andrew Voigt
Drew Voigt

“The Iowa MD-PhD Program has an incredible reputation,” says Voigt, a soccer player at St. Olaf College as an undergraduate student. “They're strong in both science and clinical medicine. It was a great fit.”

Voigt worked with a “super team of mentors” while earning his PhD in Biomedical Science in 2023. Robert Mullins and Todd Scheetz, both professors in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, used their complimentary expertise to advise Voigt in his research on the mechanisms of blinding diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration.

“Drew entered the program with the competency of a senior postdoc,” Mullins says. “He’s brilliant, very humble, and down to earth.”

Voigt was awarded the 2023 D.C. Spriestersbach Prize in the Biological and Life Sciences category for his dissertation, “Molecular Analysis of the Human Retina and Choroid at the Single Cell Level.” The Graduate College nominated Voigt for the Council of Graduate Schools/University Microfilms International Distinguished Dissertation Award.

The D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize was established in 1981 to recognize excellence in doctoral research. The Spriestersbach Prize is named for Duane C. Spriestersbach, who served as Graduate College dean from 1965 to 1989. Spriestersbach hoped the prize would “serve as tangible evidence—as ‘gold standards’—of the outstanding work of which graduate students are capable and to which all others should aspire.”

“I am very honored, very humbled. I am extremely fortunate to have been selected,” Voigt says.

Endothelial cells are first domino to fall

To study the visual system, Voigt integrates molecular biology and bioinformatic approaches to measure gene expression in retinal cells. He compared endothelial cells from macular degeneration samples versus endothelial cells from control samples and characterized their genetic differences.

Voigt made his comparisons using an innovative technology called single-cell RNA sequencing. Previously, genes were studied in the whole tissue of your eye. Now, he was able to examine genes that are being used in each individual cell type.

“That is like going from black and white TV to 4K color. You can look at a tissue in so much more depth because you can resolve where different signals are coming from,” Voigt says. “You can say these signals are coming from a photoreceptor cell that is detecting light, and this gene is coming from a ganglion cell, which is delivering that information to the brain. You can really start to piece together how these cells are interacting. For people with macular degeneration and diseases that cause blindness, we better understand what is going on.”

Simply put, Voigt and his colleagues found that endothelial cells, the cells that provide blood to the eye, in macular degeneration are stressed in ways that endothelial cells in healthy eyes are not stressed.

“From our perspective, the first domino that falls in macular degeneration is damage to the endothelial cells,” Voigt says. “For macular degeneration patients, there's proinflammatory stress on the endothelial cells that creates an environment that is not conducive to them being happy and healthy. That proinflammatory environment eventually leads to them undergoing cell death.”

Mullins receives many post-mortem eyes from the Iowa Lions Eye Bank that are not valid for surgery but can be used scientifically.

Voigt was on call the first two years of his PhD study, ready to respond whenever eyes arrived from the eye bank. Often in the middle of the night, he would come into the lab and dissect tissues for further study. Lab members then converted the findings to genetic data and used the University of Iowa’s Argon Supercomputers to analyze the data.

While this data was critical to Voigt’s dissertation, he also wanted to make it publicly available. To accomplish this, Voigt created a website called Spectacle, featuring gene expression studies that can be accessed through the internet.

“I would argue that he did 2 ½ graduate students-worth of research during his dissertation,” Scheetz says. “He did all the molecular work, then he turned around and did all the computational work. In addition, he built a brand-new system to display that data for others. Any one of those could have been a thesis by itself.”

Voigt could not have done all this award-winning work without the mentorship of Mullins and Scheetz.

“Both Rob and Todd have been so kind and supportive as I went through the ups and downs of a PhD,” Voigt says. “They were always looking out for me trying to support me emotionally as I developed and learned new kinds of skills. I learned a great deal from them about how to work on interdisciplinary teams. Anytime you collaborate, you put more in the collaboration than you intend to take out. We were always working with diverse interdisciplinary groups.”

Community outreach through soccer

When Drew was played soccer in college, he learned so many important life lessons from the sport.

“I wasn't always the best player, but it taught me how to work hard, how to work on a team, and it taught me leadership,” Voigt says.

To maintain a good work-life balance, Voigt and his medical school colleagues decided to share their love of soccer with kids with autism. They worked with the Iowa City Autism Community to hold soccer camps for the kids in 2018.

We had camps that lasted 10 weeks at the Hawkeye Tennis & Recreation Complex. It was a low-stress, high-fun event,” Voigt says. “These camps were designed to get these kids together and play soccer in a way that there was not pressure. My med school buddies and I really got a lot out of it. It was great to see these kids experience the pure joy of playing sports with each other.”

Voigt continues his passion for research and helping others as a first-year ophthalmology resident at Northwestern University’s McGaw Medical Center.