Univ. of Minn. chemist seeks greater understanding of blood

Christy Haynes
University of Minnesota chemist Christy Haynes, right, stands at a microscope and computer inside Kolthoff Hall that is used in her research on platelets. Next to Haynes is Secil Koseoglu, a graduate student who has since left the University of Minnesota to study at Harvard. Haynes was named last year as one of the "Brilliant 10" by Popular Science magazine for her research on platelets.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Christy Haynes studies blood. And she's good at it. Last fall Popular Science named Haynes one of the country's most brilliant scientists.

Haynes is fascinated by the complexity of blood.

"If you can imagine, there's a lot of stuff in blood - it's really variable from person to person, and so that makes measurements hard," she said. "You can't just have a fixed analysis method that's going to work every time."

And the chemistry in your blood changes all the time -- like every time you eat. And as if that's not enough of a moving target, one of the things inside blood, the platelet, is even wigglier. Haynes studies platelets -- the things that help us clot and heal when we get a cut.

"They're really hard to analyze because they're small and because they're sticky." she said. "The platelet's job is any time it sees a foreign surface, essentially it's to stick to it and release a bunch of stuff. So they're really hard to work with - you can't put something on them, you can't put them on top of something - whatever you do, they activate, is what we call it."

It's much easier to see the end of platelets' work. Just look how your last cut healed. It's much harder to know what that platelet was doing before you were cut, or what it did the moment it was called into action. There's still a good amount to learn about platelets.

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One person who understands her work is 83-year old James White, a retired U of M professor who has spent more than a 50 years studying platelets.

"She's doing good work, and they're very important structures - not only because they're important for filling the holes when we cut ourselves," White said. "And if they don't work right, they don't fill the holes, so your bleeding time is prolonged and you can develop very serious bleeding disorders."

Christy Haynes gets to work most days around 8:30 a.m., having been awake a good three hours already taking care of two kids. No alarm clock necessary with two young children around.

She's not teaching any classes this semester so she can focus on her research. She spends most time in her office in Smith Hall, one of the brick buildings that lines the main quad on the U of M campus. And while Haynes very much is a scientist, she rarely wears a lab coat.

"Most of my job is reading and editing and giving feedback on things. Manuscripts that my group is preparing to send to scientific journals; grant applications I'm sending in so I can keep things funded. I mean, most of what I do is - really - reading and editing stuff, and giving scientific feedback."

The platelet experiments happen next door, in Kolthoff Hall. Hers is one of those labs that was cited in a lawsuit the U of M filed, claiming the nearby new light rail line being built would disrupt sensitive research equipment. That suit was dropped in 2010.

A cadre of graduate and some undergraduate students occupies an office of computers in the basement, where they execute the projects Haynes oversees. Haynes troubleshoots and brainstorms with her students as the studies progress but it's the students who do the actual and sometimes menial experiment tasks.

One experiment happens in a windowless room, under a microscope, where students shoot platelets with chemicals and observe them for 45 seconds. Then they repeat -- a lot.

"I stand for hours," said Secil Koseoglu, one of Haynes' students who recently left the U of M to study at Harvard. Originally from Turkey, Koseoglu could tell you stories about staying until two in the morning because those 45-seconds-at-a-time experiments were going so well she didn't want to leave.

In this lab platelets are stimulated with thrombin, a chemical released when a person begins bleeding. Platelets respond by releasing serotonin, one of the agents in the clotting process.

We know that platelets respond to these body 911 calls but we don't why or how they do. Remember, platelets are wiggly and sticky, so one way to get them on their own has been to look at dead platelets. Haynes has garnered praise for finding ways to look at platelets that are still alive.

Koseoglu said if we figure out that basics of platelets we'll be able to retool platelets in people who, for example, clot too much or not at all.

"The stuff you learn with this technique can help medical doctors for diagnostic purposes, or for the treatment." she said. "So, I think that excites me to think how this fundamental work may lead to actual very useful results."

But Haynes isn't just focused on the ABCs of platelets. She's also working on bigger-picture projects with scientists at other universities. She's in the early stages of working with the Defense Department, for example, to explore whether soldiers one day might be able to screen their own blood in the field to see if they're being attacked with chemical or biological weapons.

But as her day-to-day work continues to skew more laptop and less lab coat, Haynes also is also addressing what she considers a major deficiency in her field. Research from the American Chemical Society finds that finds 39 percent of all PhD's in chemistry go to women, yet women are only 17-percent of the faculty in the top 50 chemistry departments in the U.S. And at the U of M Haynes said only 10 to 15 percent of applicants for faculty jobs in chemistry are women.

"So women self-select out of this job. And I just think that's sad. I think it leads to less diversity in the kind of scientific ideas we're pursuing."