Mapping the Future of Heart Health
Tristan Raisch was shooting for the stars when he graduated from Saint Francis. “I was convinced that I wanted to work on rockets,” he says of his plans to study aeronautical engineering.
His love of engineering solutions to problems, sparked during Chihiro Ikezi’s physics class at Saint Francis, and his passion for wrestling – Tristan was on the Lancer wrestling team for four years – took him from Mountain View to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Blacksburg, Virginia and Virginia Tech. There, as a walk-on for the Hokie wrestling team, Tristan was ready to declare a major in aeronautical engineering before a conversation with a mechanical engineer in the campus’s Christian Fellowship group convinced him otherwise. Tristan switched to mechanical engineering, interned with the Celanese chemical plant, and added a biomedical engineering minor after hearing heart researcher Dr. Steven Poelzing lecture.
Inspired by the real-life applications of Dr. Poelzing’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Lab (TBMHL) at Virginia Tech, Tristan asked for a research position in his lab. Dr. Poelzing agreed and convinced Tristan to get his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering after earning a B.S in mechanical engineering. His graduate work with TBMHL included a groundbreaking study with the cardiac surgery unit at Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, Virginia. “It all came back to Mr. Ikezi’s class,” says Tristan. “Everything I do has to do with light and optical mapping.”
Tristan studied how the cells in the heart communicate, specifically, cell-to-cell electrical signals miscommunication during atrial fibrillation (AF), the most common cardiac arrhythmia in the U.S. His team examined the space between adjacent heart cells, discovering that patients with AF have wider spaces – or perinexus, a phrase coined by Tristan’s colleague Dr. Rob Gourdie – between their cells than non-AF patients. “If the space is too large, the second cell cannot hear the order to move, so each cell does what it wants, leading to cells moving at different times and causing problems,” Tristan explains.
Using electron microscopy, Tristan and his colleagues were the first to identify and measure these small spaces between cells in the human heart. The study earned Tristan a National Institutes of Health fellowship – the first by a TBMHL graduate student – and the findings are helping to develop better, more effective heart treatment.
Before receiving his Ph.D. in Translational Biology, Medicine and Health in 2019, Tristan developed, validated and published a study to quantify the same intermembrane space more efficiently. Currently, as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Daniel Conway’s lab in the Biomedical Engineering department at Virginia Commonwealth University, he continues to study how to regulate the perinexus to modulate cardiac conduction.
“I love science, though it’s a lot different than what I imagined, but it’s exciting,” Tristan reflects. “The Holy Cross tradition definitely influenced my life. The service and leadership I learned at Saint Francis have stuck with me. I really want to serve with my career and make a mark on the world by improving it.”
He says his future may include running his own lab or working in industry or government regulation, but it’s the translational piece of his research pulls on his heartstrings: how research can apply directly to patients, with data from treatment circling back to the lab. Whatever the path, he carries the lessons he learned at Saint Francis with him from Mr. Ikezi and Todd Meulman, Lancer wrestling coach and math teacher. “Coach Meulman developed my discipline, drive and commitment,” says Tristan. “I had great coaches and teachers who showed me how leadership was done.”