Faculty Spotlight: Gretchen A. Meyer, PhD

Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy, Orthopaedic Surgery

BS, Washington University in St. Louis, 2004
MS, Washington University in St. Louis, 2004
PhD, University of California San Diego, 2011

Tell us about your career path. How did you get to where you are today?

I began my research life as a lowly undergrad here at Wash U working with Phil Bayly in Mechanical Engineering, investigating the effects of sub-concussive head impacts on shear waves in the brain.  After graduation, I went to work for Boeing here in town, but couldn’t shake my interest in biological tissues and human health – structural materials and airplane accelerations just weren’t the same.  So two years later, I was accepted to the PhD program in Bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego and moved to southern California.  I worked for 5 years as a graduate student under Rick Lieber studying skeletal muscle physiology and then stayed another 3 years as a postdoc with Adam Engler looking at how extracellular matrix cues regulate stem cell behavior.  I was lucky enough to land a job interview with WUPT, and then a job, and now here I am!

Tell us about one of the things you are currently focusing on in your work.

Our main area of research is in understanding the interaction between fat and muscle in disease.  One of our most exciting projects looks at the role of fat in rotator cuff (RC) tears.  In chronic RC tears, fat expands in and around the RC muscles and in severe cases can “replace” over 50% of the muscle volume.  Not surprisingly, muscle strength and functional use of the shoulder are impaired in these cases and both the fat and impairments fail to improve with surgical repair and rehabilitation.  We are laying the biological groundwork to investigate whether “repackaging” this fat by modifying its phenotype (characteristics) could promote muscle growth and repair.  We have developed a new (and very cool) model to study the effects of fat phenotype on muscle physiology by transplanting different fat phenotypes into a mouse RC and measuring the effects of local signaling on muscle atrophy/degeneration following experimentally-induced RC tear and hypertrophy/regeneration following repair of the tear.  We are also exploring the effect of factors secreted from human RC fat (using biopsies acquired during surgery) on muscle cells in a culture model and investigating the role of the RC fat extracellular matrix niche on phenotype shifts.

What is one of your work-related successes or achievements you are most proud of?

When we first piloted the fat transplant model, the fat was wholeheartedly rejected by the host.  I thought the project was over before it began.  But we made some changes to the surgical procedure and tried again a few times.  Later, when I eventually saw that healthy fat, engrafted on top of the muscle, larger even than when we transplanted it, I did a bit of a dance.  Most days science is a punishing endeavor, but on days you win, you really win.

What are some of the activities you like to engage in outside of your work?

I like to be outside in seasons that are not Winter.  I’m a runner and my husband likes to bike so we spend a lot of time in the parks.  I also like to travel and have been fortunate enough to see some interesting parts of the world.  

What is something that many people might be surprised to know about you?

I threw the shotput in high school track.

What advice would you give to students who want to become a physical therapist/movement science researcher?

Go for it!

Categories: Faculty Spotlight