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Of Mice and Mentors: Zach Valentine's Research at Duke

A man with brown hair in a brown shirt sits in front of a machine.
Photo by Zach Valentine

On a particularly long day interning at Duke University, BYU student Zach Valentine (NEURO ’25) had a difficult task ahead of him. From seven in the morning until midnight, he and his fellow researchers dissected 20 mice to find an MRAS gene that is associated with pain sensation. After finishing, Valentine went home exhausted—but exhilarated—by what he had accomplished.

Thanks to a College of Life Sciences donor-funded travel grant, Valentine had the opportunity to work at Duke University under the tutelage of Dr. Shad Smith. Valentine found the lab internship through BYU’s Summer Premedical Research Internship Program (SPRI); the program garners positions for BYU undergraduate students to research at prestigious research universities across the country. The Duke lab interested Valentine because of its strong link to neuroscience. Valentine had conducted similar research at BYU and wanted to expand his expertise. Each lab has its own lexicon and procedures, so he appreciated learning new skills at Duke.

The lab inspects pain response in mice and uses genetic data to pinpoint which gene is linked to pain reception. As a result of the research, they found that the MRAS gene is strongly linked to the pain receptors. This research will help with chronic illnesses among humans by enabling doctors to predict and treat those who are susceptible to chronic orofacial pain and provide preventative care for them.

A smiling man in a blue shirt with brown hair sits in front of a black and white microscope.
Photo by Zach Valentine

Valentine's favorite aspect of his internship was learning about confocal microscopy. The lab was equipped with an $80,000 microscope that Valentine used to capture imaging of the rodents’ neural networks. The microscope shot lasers at specific wavelengths that colored specific proteins in muscle tissue. He also learned techniques for staining the slides that enhanced presentation as the microscope captured the images.

As the only undergraduate student in the lab, Valentine was impressed by the support and mentorship many of the graduate students offered him. He was also grateful that they trained him on resources that provided him direct, applicable skills he can use in medical research.

A muscle tissue is shown lit up with red green and blue dots on a computer screen.
Photo by Zach Valentine

Valentine’s experience at Duke gave him opportunities to talk about his faith with his fellow interns. He shared that he appreciated his education at BYU because it allowed him to combine his faith with his love for science, which impressed those at Duke who chose their school based solely on the university’s prestige. For Valentine, science is the bedrock of his belief in God. When other students had questions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he invited them to single’s ward activities.

Valentine never would have had this opportunity at Duke without the help of donors. The grant allowed Valentine to zero in on the research experience. “I was able to be fully committed and be enveloped with the research that I was doing without having to worry about other aspects of life,” he says.

Valentine anticipates the skills he learned throughout the internship, such as using small pliers to extract specific nerves and coding in Python and R, will help him in his future career as an emergency room specialist. Valentine encourages any student who wants to expand their skills to apply for a similar program. He will be forever grateful that he took the opportunity to spend his summer at Duke.