Tall and unassuming, 19-year-old Eric Glissmeyer has just completed his freshman year at Westminster College, yet he is already attracting the attention of physicians in pulmonary medicine around the country.
Last January, in Carmel, Calif., Glissmeyer presented two papers at the annual convention of the American Federation for Medical Research, where he was the only participant who was not a physician or a medical student."I looked around," says Glissmeyer, "and here I was, this young punk who just barely got out of high school. It was just wonderful."
Although Glissmeyer is a biology major who intends to go to medical school, he is a long way from that goal. In fact, he is leaving in July to serve an LDS mission in southern Texas, where he will proselyte in Spanish for two years. But before he goes, he will publish an abstract of his lab work that will appear in a medical journal.
From the time he was a child, Glissmeyer has been fascinated by the physiology and chemistry of the human body. "I really like research," he says, "because I enjoy pursuing things that are unknown."
For the past two years, starting while he was an East High senior, he has been assisting Dr. Robert Crapo, a pulmonary physician, and Dr. Robert Jensen, a biophysicist, in the pulmonary development laboratory at Salt Lake's LDS Hospital.
"They're both wonderful men," says Glissmeyer, "very kind, a complete pleasure to work with. They've really taken me under their wing."
Dr. Crapo calls Glissmeyer "a bright, highly motivated young man who works independently and does excellent work." In fact, Crapo says Glissmeyer's presentation at the medical conference was equal in quality to those of the medical students.
Crapo and Jensen enjoy having young students such as Glissmeyer because they see it as a mentoring process, a way to introduce students with great potential to the rudiments of science.
Crapo says, "You hope to capture their imagination and interest. They learn meticulous attention to detail, study design and how to solve problems, then analyze and present (the information)."
Glissmeyer's job at the lab has allowed him to conduct research in pulmonary physiology and test pulmonary function equipment so that it can measure lung function that meets the standards of the American Thoracic Society.
He uses a highly sophisticated piece of equipment in which a computer drives wave forms that simulate actual air flow from human beings. As much as possible, the machine creates conditions similar to that experienced in human lungs
Crapo and Jensen have been leading the charge to achieve standardization of measurements around the world. According to Crapo, "The testing consists of injecting approximately 50 different types of wave forms simulating lung function into the instrument being tested."
Under the guidance of Crapo and Jensen, Glissmeyer conducts the testing, troubleshoots the instruments, prepares spread sheets and does initial analysis. His goal was to establish a single standard whereby all people, wherever they live in the world, could have their lung capacity measured.
In addition to testing, he participated in the development of what Crapo hopes is "the first practical device to test lung devices that measure defusion capacity, how gases move across the lung. This is a step forward, because you have an absolute known answer."
Measuring lung capacity is a bit different from measuring a person's cholesterol count to prevent heart disease. When lung capacity is measured, it's necessary to take into account a person's age, race, sex, height and weight.
According to Crapo, there is a measurement analogy to cholesterol. "When the importance of cholesterol as a risk factor for heart disease became understood, there was a lot of variability in cholesterol measurements.
"Different techniques and devices were used, and they produced significantly different answers. Over a period of years, the variability of cholesterol has been dramatically improved. It's an evolution of tests. You standardize them and gradually bring the noise down. That's what we've been trying to do with lung function."
Crapo says standardization will better define those people who fall within the boundaries of normal lung function and those who do not. "Those who fit near the thresholds are the ones this will help."
The results will enable physicians to better diagnose such conditions as emphysema, in which the air spaces of the lung become abnormally dilated, and pulmonary fibrosis, in which scar tissue builds up in the lungs and impairs their function.
Another project for Glissmeyer was an analysis of reference values. "We have 200 samples from Australia, thousands from Spain, several hundred from Michigan, plus a sizeable Utah study conducted by Dr. Crapo," says Glissmeyer. "These can be used as a standard across the country or even the world, so that all doctors can interpret the data in the same way."
This is not Glissmeyer's first experience with medical studies. During the summer prior to his junior year in high school, he logged 91 hours as a volunteer at the Eccles Genetics Institute at the University of Utah. As a research assistant, he participated in a cleft palate/club foot family genetics study and worked with DNA analysis.
Glissmeyer says he has not mastered "all the scientific lingo" yet and is especially grateful to Crapo and Jensen for mentoring him through the past two years. He hopes to go to medical school when he returns from his mission, "because I love helping people, especially when they are in dire need, but I don't ever want to have a 'God complex.' "
That has a great deal to do with the gentle, down-to-earth mentoring he received at LDS Hospital. He also says that the time he spent at the medical convention allowed him to appreciate the lives of doctors from a broader perspective.
"I was in Carmel for five days. I went with Dr. Crapo and Dr. Jensen, and we attended some research presentations that were over my head. It was exciting to meet people in the medical profession and learn the social part of the profession. The whole experience at the pulmonary lab has been the opportunity of a lifetime."