Getting Personal: Marni Boppart

Getting Personal: Marni Boppart

Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, 46-year-old Champaign resident Marni Boppart, an associate professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois, chats with staff writer Paul Wood. She also works with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. The Air Force veteran likes to run and keeps busy with three children.

What's something most people don't know about you?

Probably nothing. What you see is what you get, and I usually don't hold back information. If I had to choose something, perhaps that I seek adventure. When I was 18, I flew to Switzerland without telling anyone with $50 in my pocket. I planned on just spending the night and returning, but security ruined my plan and I almost didn't return. Mom wasn't happy with the decision, but we are both able to laugh about it now.

What interests you the most right now, personally? Professionally?

I currently direct a laboratory at the Beckman Institute. The lab has a broad interest in understanding the molecular and cellular events that allow for the promotion of skeletal muscle size and strength with exercise. We then use this information to develop novel molecular and cell-based therapeutics that can improve recovery of muscle mass and function following long-term immobilization (casting, bed rest) and/or disability, particularly in older adults and diabetics.

Your recent journal article suggested that lab mice given statins moved less than mice without the medication — and also that statins seemed to hamper some of the benefits of exercise. Is it too early to suggest what are the implications for human beings?

Statins can significantly reduce cholesterol and prevent loss of life due to cardiovascular disease. They are the most highly prescribed drug in the world. However, there are reports that statins can cause myopathy (muscle damage, pain and/or fatigue) in about 10 percent of users. Mice usually love to run on wheels and will run approximately 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) each night. Our study found that statin administration reduced activity on the wheel, predominantly due to loss of nerve function and increased fatigue. The reduction in activity prevented many of the health benefits associated with exercise. We also found that there was no protection from myopathy if the mice were trained and healthy prior to statin administration. Other studies support the conclusion of the study — that statin use may reduce the desire or capacity to exercise.

Given how often statins are prescribed, do you think people should ask their doctors about possible alternatives for lowering cholesterol? Would increasing exercise benefit most animals, including humans?

Exercise is the most effective approach toward prevention of cardiovascular disease and maintenance of whole body health across the lifespan. Some individuals, including those with a disability or genetic susceptibility to high cholesterol, may have no other option than to take statin medication. However, most individuals are capable of engaging in physical activity, and this should be always be discussed and considered prior to statin use. There is never a good health outcome associated with loss of the ability to exercise.

Will your work help develop new molecular or stem cell-based therapeutics? How about helping preserve muscle mass and function in older adults, diabetics or those who can't exercise because of disability?

The statin study was a collaboration with a colleague in my department, Dr. Ken Wilund. The study results were interesting, capturing attention in the New York Times, which has prompted further work in the area. However, my lab primarily focuses on developing stem cell-based therapeutics for recovery of muscle mass and function. Stem cells are found in numerous adult tissues and are required for repair, rejuvenation and growth of skeletal muscle. Unfortunately, stem cells decrease in quantity and function in the absence of activity (exercise), which can occur with age or metabolic disease. We believe that stem cell replacement strategies will be commonplace in the health care setting in the next 10 to 20 years.

What are some of your other research interests?

In collaboration with my husband, Dr. Stephen Boppart, we are developing stem cell-based therapeutics for repair of diabetic non-healing wounds. In collaboration with Dr. Justin Rhodes, also at the Beckman Institute, we are trying to understand the connection between skeletal muscle contraction and preservation of cognition (memory and learning) across the lifespan.

Are you an exerciser yourself? If so, what do you like to do? Were you an athlete in high school?

I can't imagine not exercising given what we learn in the lab on a daily basis. I run 3 to 4 miles each morning and then lift weights and perform calisthenics each morning. The more outside air and the less equipment the better. I probably dedicated most of my time in high school to other activities, such as music and community service.

You're married to another academic. Which one of you is smarter?

I'd love to say I am! But I really respect my husband's mind and creativity and inventiveness and problem-solving skills. Not sure how it happens, but the majority of our discussions tend to lean toward nature, science and technology. Too much fun.

Tell us about your children.

We have three children, including Lexi (sophomore at Centennial High School), Trent (seventh grade at St. Matthew) and Courtney (fourth grade at St. Matthew). Because of their varied interests, we have the opportunity to hear music, appreciate technology and attend sports events. They bring joy to our lives — and they teach me something new each day.

At what time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

I wake up at 5:08 a.m. I'm not sure why I add the extra 8 minutes, but they seem important. I check email, run and then take care of kids and critters until it's time for the mom bus to leave for school. There is a shower in there, too.

What do you consider your greatest achievement or accomplishment?

My dad, who was a fighter/test pilot, always said "Never jump out of a perfectly good airplane." It didn't seem right to turn my back on his advice, but I was proud when I received my freefall parachuting wings as an officer/aerospace physiologist in the Air Force.

What do you regard as your most treasured possession?

All of the photographs and collections of photo books of the kids that I have organized for the last 16 years.

Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?

Yes, solo espresso at Starbucks every morning to wake up — and a long, hot bath every night to calm down. And I like to read People magazine. That's three. I'm feeling guilty.

What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?

I have been reading the "Guide to Our National Parks" in preparation for our spring break trip to Bryce Canyon, Utah, and the Grand Canyon. I've been trying to make my way through "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," whose cells provided the basis for many discoveries in cancer, but progress is slow. My favorite book ever was the entire Harry Potter series.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

I have had the pleasure to travel quite a bit but have not been to my country of origin on my dad's side, Slovakia. Tried to learn how to speak Czech, but it was challenging.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

Our current dog, Sushi, a Shiba Inu. Such a sweet dog that doesn't bark much and loves tummy rubs. She looks like a fox and acts like a cat.

What's your favorite sports team?

My daughter's Champaign Park District basketball team so much fun to watch. I also enjoy watching Illini basketball.

What would you order for your last meal?

To be honest, I think I would lose my appetite if I knew it was my last meal. But if I had to choose, it would be grilled salmon from Billy Barooz, a big salad and a glass of Malbec.

Who are your favorite musicians and why?

James Taylor for car rides and summer nights, Rolling Stones for dancing, Andres Segovia (classical guitar) for writing/thinking.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

There are so many. Confirmation into the Catholic church, getting married to my husband on New Year's Eve, bringing each of the kids home and the first grant that I received as a researcher.

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite? What would you serve?

I would really enjoy a dinner with my husband, my mom and Michelle Obama. Not only is she kind and real, I really respect her legacy in promoting a health and wellness in children.

Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?

I am not originally from Illinois, but I have come to learn a lot about Abraham Lincoln. From writing book reports for my kids. I admire his ability to rise from minimal means through self-education, overcome loss and initiate the elimination of slavery in our country. What a strong and iconic American hero.

What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?

Those that are not able to stand up to protect others from harm. I wish I could let go sometimes and not care so much.

What's your best piece of advice?

I have a Maya Angelou quote above my desk that says, "If you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded." Nothing is more important in life than simply loving those around you.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

My first real paycheck came from working in a printing/press company. I was asked to perform various tasks, but I remember cleaning toilets the most, which was rather disgusting. Yet it paid enough money (maybe $3/hour) so that I could go roller skating with my friends every Saturday night.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

I have been interested in medicine and health as long as I can remember. I was an EMT and worked in the ER and laboratories in high school and college. After completing my doctoral degree, I considering completing the medical degree, but decided that I had a passion for teaching and that faculty life would be more conducive to supporting a family. I am excited to go to work each day and love sharing what I learn with my family.

Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?

None, always try your best and never look back.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

Espresso, hot baths and People magazine. I can handle just about anything as long as I can exercise each morning.

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CharacterCounts wrote on April 17, 2017 at 8:04 am

 This is great article and seems to be about a person with her head on her shoulders and is well rounded.  Thank you for your service to our country with your service in the U.S. Air Force.  Imagine if most everyone in our country served our country in some way for two or three years before they are 25 years old.  Service in the military or Peace Corps would be great opportunities.

She seems to bring a lot of experiences to her students.  Military service, Ph.D., husband, three children and Christian faith stand out from the article.  She seems like the type of professor I would like to teach my children.  We are fortunate to have her at the University of Illinois and be a member of the community.