Mikey Bergman

Chemistry, College of Science

“My research looks at the protein-dense tissue that make up the optic lens, how these proteins are arranged, what they are doing to remain stable for so long, and how cataracts form in them over time.”

PhD candidate Mikey Bergman is fascinated by your eyes – or more specifically, the unusual protein that allows your eyes to function. The second year student in the department of chemistry and chemical biology is studying crystallins, proteins that make up the optical lens in the human eye, which is itself responsible for focusing light to the retina. “It’s actually a really interesting tissue,” Bergman explains, “The proteins that are in your eye were there when you were born, and they’ll be there when you die. The cells in your lens are programmed to produce high amounts of crystallins and then die off, meaning they don’t replace themselves and the proteins are tasked to remain stable throughout your entire life.”

A graduate of University of Minnesota-Rochester with a B.S. in Health Sciences, Bergman was attracted to the study of biomedical problems, but found himself drawn towards chemistry for his PhD as a means to understand the mechanisms behind the biological processes he had studied. “When you are doing biological research, you always have questions about why something works, how it’s possible…chemistry is the ‘why’ behind biology, just as physics is the ‘why’ behind chemistry.”

As a part of the Biomaterials Design Group lab, Bergman’s study of the proteins’ native interactions was inspired by an absence of data about the behavior of healthy crystallins in the eye. “There’s so much focus on the pathology – what the formation of cataracts looks like – that there is this huge gap in the literature and research regarding what the proteins look like while healthy and performing normally,” he says, “By the time people are looking at these proteins really closely it’s often after they’ve been functioning for seven or eight decades.”

In the long run, Bergman’s aim is to investigate how these proteins can be repurposed for biomaterials, where their properties could have intriguing new applications in the future. “From a biochemical perspective, their stability is a really amazing feat,” he explains, “So my research is examining things like, what can I do to damage these proteins, what kind of things are they resistant to…I’m developing a profile of how these proteins are working, and what they are doing.”

While this research is still in its infancy, Bergman is optimistic and excited about its potential. “I have some ideas about how we could process it into a material, the real trick after that will be giving it a function. I have a lot of theories about what I can make!”

“I want to remain in academia, because I really like the idea of running a research lab someday. That puts me in a position to cultivate peoples’ passion, help them onto the next stage of their careers and see them succeed…I think that that’s a really unique opportunity – not many jobs allow you to work that closely with people.”
Mikey Bergman