Marissa Mueller didn’t plan to get involved with research in college. But the biomedical engineering student found a new love while studying the accuracy of devices similar to Fitbits and Nike Fuel Bands.
Emily Nelson
Tim Schoon

When Marissa Mueller was in sixth grade, she played Winthrop in a production of The Music Man. A few lines from the musical came back to the Petrolia, Ontario, resident while watching a football game during a visit to the University of Iowa.

You really ought to give Iowa
Hawkeye Iowa

Ought to give Iowa a try!

“Everyone was yelling ‘Go Hawks!’ And I realized this was Hawkeye Iowa,” Mueller says.

Giving Iowa a try was an easy decision for Mueller, who was recruited to throw javelin for the Hawkeyes.

“I had never experienced that kind of atmosphere before,” Mueller says. “Everyone here is a Hawkeye through and through. It feels great to feel and be part of something bigger than yourself.”

Dare to Discover

Marissa Mueller is one of 21 undergraduate students featured in the University of Iowa’s Dare to Discover campaign, which showcases researchers, scholars, and creators from across the University of Iowa on banners throughout downtown Iowa City.

Once here, the now third-year biomedical engineering and pre-med student also ended up giving research a try.

“I had sort of ruled research out coming into university,” Mueller says. “I thought it wasn’t for me, but I had never really been exposed to it. Getting involved in research is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

While working in a neuromuscular biomechanics lab with Laura Frey Law, associate professor in physical therapy and rehabilitation science, to assess the accuracy of ActiGraph accelerometers—the research-grade counterpart of activity trackers like Fitbit and Nike Fuel Bands—Mueller discovered some unusual discrepancies. Outputs, like calories burned or steps taken, varied wildly depending on which algorithm was used in the accompanying software program.

“One algorithm would say you’re burning 1,000 calories a day while another said 4,000 calories,” Mueller says. “Because we were using the same data set, you would assume it would spit out the same numbers.”

Mueller has since branched off from the original project to further investigate the cause of this variability. Gaining a better understanding of how such measurements are calculated is important, she says, because these devices are increasingly being used in recreational and medical settings. For example, if doctors use these devices to monitor patient activity that has been prescribed as preventive or rehabilitation therapy, they need to be able to reliably interpret the data.

Frey Law says they recently submitted a manuscript for publication in which Mueller did much of the work, including coming up with excellent ideas for potential graphs and figures. Mueller presented the project and won an award for her poster last summer at the Society for Women Engineers (SWE) conference in Anaheim, California—at which there were more than 16,000 people.

“There are a lot of decisions coming up, but it’s comforting knowing that the experience and engineering degree I’m getting at Iowa have left me with so many fantastic opportunities.”

Marissa Mueller
third-year biomedical engineering and pre-med student

“She is highly inquisitive and has done an outstanding job on her first project in my lab,” Frey Law says. “I applaud her consistent efforts to figure out how to answer our research questions, how these answers impact other studies and applications, and her drive to share what she has learned with others.”

One way in which Mueller has shared her love of research and advocated for more undergraduates to get involved in it is by participating in Fall in Love with Research Week, which was sponsored in part by the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates (through which Mueller has a fellowship) and the UI Student Government (for which Mueller is a student-athlete representative).

Mueller’s undergraduate research experiences have motivated her to consider pursuing a more research-oriented career than she originally planned. She is scheduled to take the MCAT this spring and plans to apply to MD/PhD programs.

“There are a lot of decisions coming up, but it’s comforting knowing that the experience and engineering degree I’m getting at Iowa have left me with so many fantastic opportunities,” Mueller says.

One of those opportunities may come this summer, when Mueller is scheduled—depending on the COVID-19 pandemic—to head to Mozambique for a research internship that will include deep-sea diving to study marine life such as sharks, manta rays, and dolphins. While that may seem unrelated to her biomedical engineering studies, Mueller says Iowa has taught her transferrable skills that she looks forward to applying to a new field in which she has always been interested

“When I applied, I said I am involved in research and understand the scientific method,” Mueller says. “I said I have experience with data analysis and work well in a team. I have an interest in tropical marine biology and have taken classes related to it. I said I could apply all these skills in a new context to contribute to this research field.”

Mueller credits mentors on campus for their unending support.

“The support I’ve gotten from athletics, the honors program, the College of Engineering, academic advisers—absolutely everyone is open and willing to help you make the most of your undergraduate experience,” Mueller says. “Dr. Frey Law in particular has taught me so much professionally and personally, including how to navigate academia, how to work in research, technical skills, and how to communicate research.”

Frey Law says Mueller is an outstanding student in so many ways and it’s been a pleasure getting to work with her.

“Marissa is a high achiever in so many ways, all done with a smile and what seems to be a true desire to learn and advance her capabilities in everything she attempts to do,” Frey Law says. “She is an excellent role model for those around her, including me. I have had a number of excellent students over the years work with me in my laboratory, and Marissa is certainly one of the shining stars that impresses all who come in contact with her.”

A knee injury in high school sidelined Mueller from playing volleyball and running track, but it led to her giving javelin a shot. Which in turn led Iowa to offer her a track and field scholarship, and Mueller giving Hawkeye Iowa a try.

“It was a bit of a fluke,” Mueller says. “And it was the best fluke that could have happened.”