Marni Boppart’s approach to life and work is probably hereditary. Her father flew F-4 jets on low level reconnaissance wartime missions; she was an Air Force kid who grew up to be an Air Force officer.
“I was on airplanes since I was about two weeks old,” Boppart says with a laugh. “I was always exposed to the flying environment, so I love altitude.”
Boppart didn’t become a jet pilot, but she did serve in the Air Force as an aerospace physiologist, earned her free fall parachute jump wings, and has taken occasional forays into daredevil activities like hang gliding and repelling. But for Boppart, her time in the Air Force was more about science.
– Marni Boppart
“I took flying lessons and enjoyed my career in the Air Force, but my primary interest has always been in the biological sciences,” she said.“Becoming an aerospace physiologist was a nice way to balance my interests in adventure and the sciences.”
Boppart’s time in the Air Force served two other purposes that eventually led to her current position as a faculty member at Illinois and the Beckman Institute. While serving, she nurtured an interest in the science of exercise physiology and she also met her future husband, fellow professor and Beckman researcher Stephen Boppart.
“Stephen and I were a natural fit for each other because we are both kind of curious,” she said. “I knew that he was going on for his Ph.D. and I was interested in going on for my doctoral work as well.”
Earning her Sc.D. in Applied Anatomy and Physiology from Boston University, Boppart later did research at Harvard Medical School and was fortunate, she said, to land a post-doctoral position at the University of Illinois when Stephen joined the faculty here in 2000.
“We both have family here in the Midwest, and of course, this is one of the best engineering schools in the nation,” she said. “I got very lucky because there was a faculty member (Stephen Kaufman) in cellular and developmental biology who was doing work that I was very interested in, so I worked with him on and off for a total of six years.”
Boppart eventually became an Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at Illinois and joined the Beckman Institute as a full-time faculty member in the Bioimaging Science and Technology group. Her research interests lie broadly in the field of exercise science, and include areas such as cellular biomechanics, cell signaling, and the role certain proteins can play in the protection of skeletal muscle from injury, disease, and aging.
“We are interested in understanding how muscle cells transmit mechanical forces into chemical signals that increase muscle integrity and structure and how these signals are involved in remodeling the tissue,” she said of her work.
Boppart is interested in topics like how molecules within a muscle cell sense forces that occur during exercise.
“We know that if a muscle cell is stretched in culture, the cell will enlarge or hypertrophy,” she said. “The same phenomenon occurs when we contract our muscles during exercise.”
These processes are at the heart of why Boppart does research.
“I think that exercise research is fascinating because of the fact that we know there are these healthy, beneficial effects provided to skeletal muscle following exercise but we don’t know the process by which they occur,” Boppart said. “I enjoy getting my mind into the cell and seeing what is responsible for some of these changes.”
Boppart’s research mission isn’t just based on scientific curiosity; she wants to see her work have an impact on people.
“The long term goals of my research are, number one, I would like people to have an impetus to exercise,” she said. “If they understand that exercise is truly beneficial at a biological level then they might say, yes, I will go out and exercise. But if that’s not possible and is unrealistic then we need to develop interventions in order to prevent that loss of muscle and function that occurs primarily with aging.”
One possible intervention that Boppart is currently working on involves stem cells.
“My research has shown that with exercise there is an increase in a specific stem cell population to skeletal muscle,” she said. “So far what we can tell is that these stem cells secrete agents that are important in mediating an anti-inflammatory effect within the muscle. So they may be very beneficial for the health status of muscle. I think what I would like to see, instead of drug development for prevention of the loss of muscle, is the development of injectable stem cell therapy.”
Her current research lines involving exercise complement a deep personal interest in exercise, healthy living, quality aging, and the outdoors.
“Exercising allows me to focus while trying to accomplish many tasks,” she said, adding that her exercise workouts involve “anything outdoors, running, hiking, biking, just to breathe the air and commune with nature. I think it’s essential for the human spirit to do that on a daily basis.”