VIDEO: Undergraduate Research Profile of Dan Schuster

If there were a word to describe Dan Schuster, it'd be motivated.

Consider this image: Riding the University Shuttle down to his research gig on the Chicago campus, Schuster dons a suit, clicks away on his iPhone, and shuffles through homework.

The student next to him sleeps.

It's this motivation that got McCormick School of Engineering junior Schuster a research position in the lab of Kofo Ogunyankin, assistant professor of cardiology at the Feinberg School of Medicine, and it's this motivation that got his name as a co-author on published papers and got him a spot speaking at an international cardiology conference.

"Research is what we're all after," Schuster says. "I wanted to go beyond the school work and apply the knowledge I was learning."

During his freshman year at Northwestern, when most students were taking classes in search of a major, Schuster was already planning his post-undergraduate life. A biomedical engineering major, he knew he wanted to go to medical school — a hospital stay to get his appendix removed at the age of 10 convinced him he wanted to practice medicine — and he already had an interest in becoming a orthopedic surgeon. Despite having no research experience, he began sending emails to Feinberg professors, looking for leads, asking if they needed any help in their labs. He pitched himself as a motivated freshman who, once trained, could provide them with four years of research work.

"I wanted to be in the medical environment to have some exposure," he says. "I wanted to apply my knowledge and make some connections."

Ogunyankin answered his call. In Ogunyankin's lab, Schuster analyzes echocardiographic images — which are essentially sonograms of the heart — to help build a database that researchers hope to use to consider questions related to the function of heart ventricles. For his part, Schuster uses software to "speckle track" images. This tracks the pixels of the heart image to determine how the heart muscle is functioning. Since Northwestern Memorial Hospital's heart transplant program is considered one of the best in the world, many of the echocardiographs that Schuster analyzes are those of transplant patients.

"We hope to define what is normal for a transplanted heart," he says. "Transplant patients also must undergo several taxing procedures to determine how well the transplant is going. With this database, we hope to have better early diagnostic tools for transplant patients that are quicker and less taxing."

Schuster admits that his research experience might be different than others at McCormick — he works at a computer, wears a suit, and deals with software and spreadsheets rather than chemicals and instruments — and he can make his own schedule, though he ends up going down to the campus a couple times a week. He often works with medical residents or fellows — and uses the chance to chat them up about the realities of med school — and sometimes even gets to train new residents in the research. That makes the 40-minute treks worth it.

"I've definitely been exposed to the reality of the medical field, like the taxing hours," Schuster says. "But I've developed my research skills, and that's something you just can't get in a classroom." Schuster even got a chance to present his work at the American Society of Echocardiography conference last June, the week before finals.

"I was introduced as Dr. Schuster," he says. "I had to correct them. I didn't want to get thrown any tough questions. I felt a lot of pressure to prove myself, but it went well, so I was relieved."

To undergraduates who are considering seeking out research positions, Schuster says: just do it.

"It's absolutely worthwhile," he says. "You just have to talk to professors, submit your resume, take advantage of contacts. And don't be afraid to try different things. If you don't like it, then you know it's not what you want to do. Researchers know you don't know everything about research, but they appreciate a drive to attain knowledge."

For Schuster, his research experience has changed what he thought were concrete life plans. Now he wants to be a cardiothoracic surgeon who does both research and clinic work — a model he found in Ogunyankin.

"I'd like to find a balance like Dr. Ogunyankin has," Schuster says. "Medicine is hard work, and it's a lot of time away from your family. But the exposure I've gotten has helped me decide that it's what I want to do. It's a ton of work, but it's something I really enjoy doing."

- Emily Ayshford. Video by Matthew Dalzell.