Carnegie Mellon University
September 15, 2016

Soccer and Science, a Winning Formula for Teammates

Three soccer players

By Julianne Mattera / 412-268-2902 /

At Carnegie Mellon University, teamwork doesn't just happen on the field for the nationally ranked women's soccer team. For three biological sciences majors, it follows them into the science lab.

Senior Samantha Smith, a center defender on CMU's soccer team, is a member of Professor Jonathan Minden's 12-person "Proteomics Platoon" along with her soccer mates and fellow biology majors Haili Adams and Nicole Winegardner.

The platoon of undergraduate researchers analyzes proteins to see if they can find changes that can be linked to various diseases, including cancer.

All three share a passion to succeed in sports and science.

Teammates on the field first, Smith joined Minden's lab as a sophomore, then as other positions in the research group became available she recommended that her teammates apply.

"The love for the game translates really well to research," Smith said. "It's the same idea of a team — the idea of having the same goal of finding a protein or a cure or something new in general."

Minden, who attends games, marveled at the players' grit and speed on the soccer field. Adams is one of the most tenacious players he's ever seen, and Smith, Minden said, plays with sheer confidence.

"She just seems to know what she's doing all the time," Minden said. "She's that way in the lab, too."

Minden said the three students, like most varsity athletes, are experts at time management. It's a critical skill for busy Carnegie Mellon undergraduates like Smith, Adams and Winegardner who juggle soccer practices and games with lab work, classes and homework.

Since the experiments are complicated, athletes working in Minden's lab tend to move their experiments to the weekend — meaning that his lab is running around the clock, seven days a week, he said. Some even come by after practice or a game.

Generally, the Proteomics Platoon conducts research that uses two-dimensional gel electrophoresis to analyze and compare proteins, with the ultimate goal of identifying the ones that are altered in ways that could lead to diseases like cancer. Proteomics, Minden said, is an offshoot of genomics, which looks at the entire set of proteins in an organism.

"It's more complex than genomics in that every cell in your body has a different mixture of proteins. They all have the same genes, but they express those genes differently. So, each cell has a different composition of proteins. ... And in disease, some of those proteins change," Minden said. "So, we're doing a variety of experiments tracking down what the changes are in a variety of different conditions and a variety of different organisms."

The two-dimensional gel electrophoresis that Smith, Adams and Winegardner perform use fluorescent chemistry to label the proteins of different cell extracts as either green or red. The proteins are then mixed and run on the same two-dimensional electrophoresis gel. Members of the platoon then take photos of the gel, selecting the wavelength for each color. Proteins that are common to both samples appear as yellow, while proteins that are enriched in one sample versus the other appear as red or green.

The method has been used to identify protein changes during the embryo development of fruit flies, cancer cells, mutant yeast and other areas.

Running each experiment takes about three days, Minden said, making it difficult for one undergraduate student to complete an entire experiment alone. So, Minden created the platoon, with a dozen students who conduct experiments in pairs under the supervision of five graduate students. Experienced undergraduates train newcomers.

"In the platoon, because there's this hierarchy of experience and inexperience, they get experience in training other people and how to communicate without hurting feelings and being responsible for managing their time," Minden said, which creates a culture of teamwork.

A Team Network

With a team ranked No. 7 nationally at the end of last season, Yon Struble, head women's soccer coach, summed up his praise simply: "These ladies do it all."

"They play soccer on one of the most competitive teams in the country, they attend one of the most challenging academic institutions, they do research, shadow doctors, are active members of the campus community, they are teaching assistants, and they overload their classes to challenge themselves and take on two majors or double minors," Struble said.

For Adams, a junior forward, it was eye opening to see the connections, breadth of experience and support the team provided.

"You're not only playing on a team," Adams said, "but you're playing with 30-some other girls who all have connections in different majors, different knowledge and you get all this experience from all these different fields that I don't think I would have been exposed to had I not been on my team."

Being on the soccer team also can lead to benefits that extend beyond Carnegie Mellon. Struble said the experience opens doors for players, who can demonstrate to future employers that they are highly competitive, committed, and able to work with others and manage time.

Women's soccer is celebrating its 25th season at CMU. Struble said the goal this year is to have the players continue to challenge themselves, learn from mistakes and be humble in victories.

"We don't talk about winning and losing," he said. "We talk about improving each day."