Published 28 June 2011 by Lou Woodley

Researcher portrait: Armen Kherlopian

This year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting involves over 550 young scientists from around the world. We’ve been talking to some of the attendees about their research, their opinions about scientific issues and their experience of the meeting. After meeting Armen Kherlopian at a Science Online NYC meet-up at Rockefeller University and discovering he was also attending Lindau, I asked him some questions about his scientific career to date via email.

Short Bio
Armen is a Biophysics PhD Candidate at the Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Cornell University. Previously, he completed his BS and MS in Biomedical Engineering at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences of Columbia University. As a computational scientist, Armen works on the interface of high performance computing and biological applications. When he gets a chance, he likes to sail, fence and horseback ride.

Can you explain your research area to a non-specialist in three sentences?
I use computer models to study the electrical activity of the heart, which is mediated by the interplay of ion channels, pumps, transporters, and exchangers. Disruption of this interplay can lead to disease and death, as the heart typically needs a normal rhythm to adequately pump blood to the rest of the body. Using an optimization strategy based on evolutionary biology, I study how underlying ionic changes can account for differences in cardiac function and dysfunction.

For a further introduction, my labmate, Byron Roberts, has a great post on cardiac modeling.

Do you think that what you’re working on has a practical application or is it more conceptual, and does this matter to you?
I believe that the search and attainment of knowledge is valuable in and of itself. Personally though, I have a preference for working on problems with direct applications. Cardiac arrhythmia, the abnormal beating of the heart, leads to millions of cases of morbidity and mortality around the world each year. Insights on underlying arrhythmia mechanisms can lead to improved and new treatments resulting in improved quality of life and lives saved. For my research I use computer models to shed light on cellular processes not readily measured, let alone measured simultaneously. This approach works in concert with experiments, as theory informs experimental design and the resultant data can be used to make better models that have predictive value, with the goal of improving patient outcomes.

At this year’s Lindau meeting, for the first time, there is a theme. The theme is Global Health, which is essentially the application of medical science and mathematics to disease in populations. I am intrigued to see how the theme will be interwoven throughout the meeting and I myself have interest and some experience in Global Health. Several years ago I partnered with a medical student on a humanitarian aid project rendering operational a medical and dental clinic in rural Armenia for 800 orphans. Currently, it seems that Global Health is coming more to the forefront of international dialogue, propelled by efforts from world governments and organizations such as the Gates Foundation.

What’s your average day at work like? Meetings? Lab work? Reviewing papers? Teaching?
As an upper level graduate student I have the good fortune of being able to focus exclusively on my research. My coursework requirements are complete and I don’t have too many meetings to attend. Thus, I am able to effectively channel my passion for science into my research project.

What’s been the biggest challenge in your research career so far?
The scientific literature is immense and is growing rapidly. I do my best to keep aware of new developments by being an avid reader and reaching out to peers and thought leaders.

Do you think you’ve had any lucky breaks? Any key experiments that worked first time or an important bit of advice that you were given or a timely grant/publication?
I have been very fortunate to have an advisor, Dr. David Christini, who has fostered my natural sense of curiosity, while also providing practical guidance on how to keep making progress with my research. In addition, my DOE Computational Science Graduate Fellowship and related supercomputing allocation have allowed me to both attain advanced computing training while enabling me to conduct modeling studies on a timescale and level of detail not possible with traditional computing methods.

Are there many others in the world working on the same subject as you? Do you think this helps or hinders you?
There is a Gordon Research Conference on Cardiac Arrhythmia Mechanisms, which represents an active community focused on topics related to projects in my home laboratory. I think that having multiple groups working on overlapping problems accelerates progress due to inherent information sharing via publications. Also, collaborations would not be possible if everyone worked in isolation.

What key questions do you hope will be answered in your research area in the coming years?
It would be interesting to see analysis of patient specific genetic factors enabling accurate predictions on the efficacy and risk of using particular anti-arrhythmic agents.

If you could have three wishes about your work granted this year, what would they be?
First, I plan to continue developing as a productive researcher. Second, that the conclusion of my thesis work will provide both a useful modeling approach for others and an insightful set of results regarding probing ionic mechanisms. Third, I hope to continue to instill a passion in the upcoming generation of students by remaining active with science outreach programs based out of Cornell.

How did you hear about the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and how did you apply to attend?
I heard about the meeting from my graduate school office. From there I embarked on a three phase application process: a university wide nomination process, a U.S. national competition via a sponsorship track (DOE, NIH, ORAU, or MARS), and a final international confirmation from the Lindau selection committee itself. Having been selected, I consider it a privilege to represent my school and country at the meeting, and I look forward to interacting with the Nobel Laureates and my fellow young researchers.

What are you most looking forward to about attending this year’s meeting?

I hope to see examples of creative sparks, whether it is during a formal Q&A with a Laureate or even during informal conversations with my peers.

Lou Woodley