Academics

Dr. Robert Balza Jr.
Associate Professor of Biology

Education

  • B.S., Wisconsin Lutheran College – biology and chemistry
  • Ph.D., Medical College of Wisconsin – biochemistry

Biography

As an alumnus of WLC, I know firsthand what amazing opportunities are available here for undergraduate training in the natural sciences. The recent construction of the new Science Hall and new initiatives to encourage undergraduate research has further enhanced these opportunities. I hope my background in molecular genetics, cellular and developmental biology will augment an already strong department. I reside in Menomonee Falls with my wife, Nicole, and daughter, Julia.

In my spare time I enjoy playing foosball, restoring my 19th century home and SCUBA diving with the marine ecology students in Grenada.

Research Interests

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of mortality in the United States, and congenital heart defects are the most common form of lethal birth defect. However, we have a limited understanding of the molecular basis for these problems. I have, therefore, initially focused my research efforts on characterizing the regulatory factors that guide development of the cardiovascular system. Recent advances in molecular genetics allow for the manipulation of gene expression during development. I employ these techniques in a variety of model systems at Wisconsin Lutheran College: the mouse, chick and zebrafish.

Figure 1
Figure 1
A) The optical clarity and external fertilization of the zebrafish embryo allows for high-through put screening of agents which may cause heart defects.
B) The chick embryo provides an easily accessible model for a four-chambered vertebrate heart.

Research in cardiovascular disease is held back by a lack of suitable heart cell lines. Recently, several labs have shown that stem cells may be coaxed into forming contractile heart muscle cells for research or even regenerating the diseased heart. Unfortunately, procurement of one such cell type (embryonic stem cells) necessitates the destruction of embryos. We are currently exploring the use of a new stem cell type (induced pluripotent stem cells) for generating heart muscle tissue that does not require the use of embryos, but are instead derived from adult connective-tissue cells in the skin (fibroblasts). We have developed robust techniques for the differentiation of mouse stem cells into heart tissue as well as efficient techniques for the purification of mouse heart muscle cells (cardiomyocytes), a mixed-cell population. While we continue to refine these strategies, our focus has shifted to a rigorous comparison of the morphological, genetic, and physiological differences between the cardiomyocytes derived from these two types of stem cells. This work is funded through the Gary and Sandra Greenfield Endowed Chair for Christian Leadership Studies.

Current Courses

BIO 331 Cell Biology - The cell is the fundamental unit of all life. This course explores the great diversity of cellular form and function. Cells have been endowed with the extraordinary ability to build and copy themselves from nonliving substrate and adapt to a wide range of environmental surroundings. Therefore, emphasis is placed on the molecular mechanisms of cell metabolism, growth, division and communication in this course. The successful student will develop a deeper understanding of what life is and how it functions at the cellular level. In the lab, students will gain proficiency in animal cell culture, immunofluorescent microscopy and tissue histology. Course Syllabus.

BIO 355 Pathophysiology - This is a new course designed to inform students of the fundamental mechanisms of human disease. The successful pathophysiology student will understand how various manifestations of disease interact with human physiology, anatomy and biochemistry. This will allow students preparing for careers in healthcare or biomedical science to better comprehend the rationale of modern medical interventions.

BIO 360 Genetics - The study of heredity and molecular genetics is fundamental to all other biological disciplines. The successful student in this course will develop a working knowledge of inheritance, the structure and function of DNA, regulatory mechanisms of gene expression, and principles of developmental genetics. In the lab, students gain proficiency in nucleic acid isolation, polymerase chain reaction, gel electrophoresis, recombinant DNA technology, gene expression analysis and transgenic animal technology. Course Syllabus.

BIO 372 Developmental Biology - The wonder of a fertilized egg directing its own development into an adult organism is nearly unfathomable in its complexity. However, recent technological advances have begun to shed light on the fundamental molecular mechanisms that guide development. This course is designed to introduce students to these discoveries. The societal, political, ethical and theological issues surrounding assisted reproductive technology, cloning and stem cell technology are also considered. In the lab, students will be exposed to modern techniques used to manipulate and examine developmental processes in several key model systems. Course Syllabus.

Membership in Professional Societies

American Association of Anatomists
Association of College and University Biology Educators
Society of Developmental Biology

Recent Publications

Balza, R., and Misra, R. Role of the serum response factor in regulating contractile apparatus gene expression and sarcomeric integrity in cardiomyocytes. J Biol Chem. 281:6498-6510., 2006. Click here for abstract.

Nelson, T., Balza, R., Xiao, Q., and Misra, R. SRF-dependent gene expression in isolated cardiomyocytes: regulation of genes involved in cardiac hypertrophy. J Mol Cell Cardiol. 39: 479-89., 2005. Click here for abstract.

Miano, J., Ramanan, N., Georger, M., de Mesy Bentley, K., Emerson, R., Balza, R., Xiao, Q., Weiler, H., Ginty, D., and Misra, R. Restricted inactivation of serum response factor to the cardiovascular system. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 101: 17132-17137., 2004. Click here for abstract.