Biomedical engineering student named UI’s 22nd Rhodes Scholar

Tricia Brown
Office of Strategic Communication

As an athlete on the Iowa women’s track and field team, Marissa Mueller has worked hard at remaining calm under pressure. She used those skills Saturday as she interviewed for the most prestigious opportunity of her college career.

Mueller, who will graduate in May with a degree in biomedical engineering, is from Petrolia, Ontario, Canada, and on Saturday was named one of that country’s 11 Rhodes Scholars. She is the 22nd UI student to receive the honor, and the second female.

Beginning in fall 2021, she will spend two years studying stem cells and regenerative engineering at Oxford University in England.

She says neither the Rhodes scholarship nor any of her other achievements would have been possible without dozens of people at Iowa who have helped her—in the classroom, in the neuromuscular biomechanics research lab, and on the practice field.

“So many people at the university believed in me. They helped me take advantage of all these opportunities and helped me see the potential in each of them, and in myself when I didn’t see it,” she says. “They inspired me to chase my dreams. I am beyond humbled and thankful. There is no way anything like this would have happened without that community of support.”

Harriet Nembhard, dean of the College of Engineering, was part of a mock interview panel as Mueller prepared. Nembhard says she gave Mueller homework after the mock interview so that Mueller could improve her answer to a tough question.

“What sets Marissa apart is how she handled my critique with grace and completed the follow-up assignment,” says Nembhard. “She was able to communicate with both knowledge and empathy. A student who can do this—even on a second or third attempt—will be a positive force to change the world.”

Mueller is an example of how opportunities within the college translate to success, Nembhard says.

“Our faculty get to know and mentor students on an individual level. Students have opportunities to gain valuable engineering experiences and equip themselves with engineering ethics and skillsets,” says Nembhard. “The result is rigorously educated engineers who will solve problems to address the needs of humanity and the welfare of society.”

Laura Frey Law, associate professor in physical therapy and rehabilitation science, has been one of Mueller’s mentors since Mueller began working in her lab in 2018. Before coming to Iowa, Mueller says she hadn’t considered research, thinking it wasn’t for her. Looking back, she says it was one of the best decisions she has ever made.

Mueller met Frey Law the second semester of her freshman year when she interviewed to be a research assistant in her lab.

“I felt overwhelmed and out of my league,” Mueller says. “The way that she explained these research concepts to me, she was kind and understanding. She’s just an outstanding person, researcher, and mentor.”

Mueller says she’s been interested in stem cells and regenerative engineering since undergoing several knee surgeries when she was younger. Two of them, she says, involved the technology.

“It was a relatively new kind of operation,” she says. “I thought it was the coolest thing, and I did a report on it in sixth grade and another one in high school.”

She describes her area of interest in this way: “Stem cells are certain cells in your body that have really cool capability to turn into little machines that fix what your body needs. They can turn into many different types of cells to heal the body. The research I hope to do will help us better understand how these cells work and how they can be manipulated and harnessed to treat diseases that are currently incurable.”

Kelly Thornburg, director of scholar development at the UI Honors Program, says people often ask her what makes someone a good fit for the Rhodes Scholarship.

“For most people, including Marissa, there needs to be powerful attraction to complex problems,” Thornburg says. “For her, it is the tangle of biological, practical, and ethical questions at the heart of stem cell research that calls her to pursue the extraordinary challenge she will find at Oxford University. I am excited to see how her relationship to those questions will be altered by her coursework, as well as by her connection to this diverse community of young scholars, creators, and advocates from all over the world.”

After completing studies at Oxford University, Mueller plans to go to medical school. For now, she’s at home with her parents while taking classes online due to COVID-19. She says she hopes to return to Iowa City after the new year, if and when COVID-19 cases start to subside.

“I miss Iowa City tremendously,” she says.

This is the question Dean Harriet Nembhard asked Marissa Mueller to improve her answer to as part of Mueller’s preparation for her Rhodes Scholarship interview:

How might you pivot your research agenda or otherwise use your engineering training (especially technical methods, theory, frameworks) to help dismantle systemic racism for Canadian indigenous communities? Engineering frameworks create a nice scaffold in which technical methods and theories may be discussed. We are taught to consider our assumptions when breaking down a large engineering problem and envisioning creative solutions. When applied to Indigenous communities, an example may involve rectifying health care inequalities as a piece of the solution to dismantling systemic racism. We may falsely assume that members of these communities want access to large, state-of-the-art facilities; in reality, individuals may value a connection to their land and community—staying at home—more than the potential benefit of being cared for at a larger center. This is an example of breaking down the problem. After this is done and solution spaces are explored, specific engineering tools might be used to attack the problem. We can employ technical training in statics, computer science, and mathematical modeling to modify current medical devices such that they are portable, cost-effective, and tailored for direct use within Indigenous communities. We can modify devices to meet patient needs. This is what engineering students are trained to do, for example, in our Senior Design capstone course that emphasizes our role in society and how we can be socially cognizant agents of change.