Given how radically his interests have shifted over the past four years, Patrick Kasl is wisely keeping an open mind about his future.
Kasl arrived on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in 2016 as a notable football recruit from Wyoming, Minnesota, who figured to one day spend his Saturdays opening holes for running backs at Camp Randall Stadium.
These days, though, Kasl’s 6-foot-6 frame no longer carries the bulk of an offensive lineman; he walked away from football before the start of the 2018 season, in part out of fear of sustaining brain damage. Instead, he’s focusing on his academic future and plans to earn a PhD.
The biomedical engineering major, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in May 2020, is still formulating a career vision beyond doctoral work, but he’s keen to further explore research in stem cell, cellular and tissue engineering.
Kasl uncovered that interest through a variety of research experiences and classes. He spent the summer of 2018 delving into stem cell science in the lab of Bo Liu, a professor in the Department of Surgery, as part of the UW-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center’s annual summer undergraduate research fellowship program.
As a junior, courses such as Stem Cell Bioengineering, Introduction to Tissue Engineering and Biochemical Engineering opened his eyes to the possibilities of working at the cellular level.
“It was cool to really get into the engineering aspect of biology, because a lot of BME can be like instrumentation or biomaterials,” says Kasl, who was one of UW-Madison’s nominees for the 2019 Goldwater Scholarship. “But when I took Stem Cell Bioengineering, that was the first time where I got a good grasp of what cellular engineering could be and seeing that there was the ability to do real engineering within the cell.”
Those advanced courses helped prepare Kasl for a 10-week summer internship at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, where he worked on a project examining cellular responses to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and the links between that condition and cancer.
“I got to work with a cool single-cell sequencing technology, and it was super interesting to get to mess around with all of that big data,” says Kasl, who works in the lab of acclaimed UW-Madison stem cell researcher James Thomson at the Morgridge Institute for Research. “I realized the power of that technique.”
Kasl’s pursuit of research opportunities and affinity for cellular engineering made him a fitting inaugural recipient of the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s Joshua Zelmanowitz Plantz Scholarship. The award was established in honor of alumnus Josh Plantz, who died in 2019, shortly after he had returned to UW-Madison to start his graduate studies in biomedical engineering.
Plantz specialized in cell and tissue engineering as an undergrad, while also working on stem cell research in the lab of Associate Professor Randolph Ashton. But Plantz also keenly followed politics, while dedicating himself to community service and social justice activism.
Likewise, Kasl’s interests extend well beyond engineering—he cites several philosophy courses as some of his favorites.
“I like being exposed to different ways of looking at problems,” he says.
Kasl has applied to PhD programs across the country and plans to start graduate school in the fall of 2020. He’s not sure if his path will lead to academia or industry—cellular engineering is rapidly evolving, he notes—but he does have a broad mission in mind.
“My end goal is to make stuff that helps people, and whether that means there are companies out there already doing that and I can help them, that is interesting to me,” he says. “But it’s quite possible that I get to the end of my PhD and the field might not be developed to the point where there are viable therapies or options for actually helping people, where the best thing to do would be to go to academia and continue with novel research.”
Author: Tom Ziemer