Sean Bannon

Investigating the Health-Related Effects of Smoking

UMass Amherst kinesiology major Sean Bannon ’24 conducts research on the effects of cigarette smoke on mitochondrial function, with important implications for public health.

Sean Bannon ’24  

Commonwealth Honors College

Winchester, Massachusetts 

What drew you to this field of study?

While training for my first Ironman triathlon, I did a lot of research on physiology and performance and learned a lot about myself and my interests in the process. This inspired a passion for applied physiology, which led me to apply to join the Oxygen and Muscle Metabolism (O2M) Laboratory as a sophomore. When I interviewed with the principal investigator (PI), Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Gwanael Layec, we connected over our shared experience doing triathlons.

How do you conduct your research?  

I conduct research in the Oxygen and Muscle Metabolism (O2M) Laboratory on the effects of cigarette smoke on mitochondrial function. Specifically, we specialize in understanding the mechanisms governing peripheral oxygen exchange in muscle bioenergetics in healthy and clinical populations to explore new therapeutic strategies.  

What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?

Cigarette smoke exposure is estimated to cause more than 480,000 deaths annually in the United States and is a primary contributor to several cancers, respiratory, cardiovascular, and chronic metabolic diseases. Many people think cigarette smoking only affects the lungs, but it’s evident that smoking can be detrimental to the entire body. With vaping and cannabis smoking growing in popularity, exposure to smoke is currently, and will continue to be, a significant public health concern. Thus, understanding the biological mechanisms underlying the pathogenic effects of cigarette smoke on health is therefore extremely important to developing new treatments.

I believe all the research we do will have an application down the road for the betterment of society. I now understand that this process takes a long time, but I am proud to be a part of it.

How does your faculty mentor support your research?

I am extremely thankful to my mentors for their unwavering support. In addition to working with the lab’s PI, Dr. Layec, I’ve been fortunate to have a PhD student, Stephen Decker, and a master’s student, Enes Erol, as mentors in the lab. They have really taken me under their wings and treated me as an equal, which has allowed me to get graduate-level research experience as an undergraduate. They have very high expectations of me, which pushes me to grow as a researcher. Beyond teaching me techniques in the lab, they always have time to meet with me, discuss the research, and offer guidance on my plans for the future. I would not be where I am today without them.

I believe all the research we do will have an application down the road for the betterment of society. I now understand that this process takes a long time, but I am proud to be a part of it. 

Sean Bannon ’22

What do you find most exciting about conducting research?

Participating in research has been an eye opening and intellectually stimulating experience for me. This was the first time I was exposed to the raw scientific method. I am in charge of leading a project; I have to make decisions, think about results, and rethink decisions on a daily basis. This personification of science has been amazing to me. The lectures I attend every day make more sense to me now; the notes I study for my tests are applied and used in problem solving. I realized that everything starts somewhere, and I am playing a part in that now.  I also love the collaborative aspect of research.  

What are you most proud of?

I recently presented my thesis work at the Advances in Skeletal Muscle Biology in Health and Disease conference at the University of Florida, a conference primarily attended by graduate students and professors. Coming to UMass as an undergraduate, I never thought I would be involved in research, let alone working on my own thesis a year earlier than expected. I’m proud of coming this far in a short amount of time.

How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?

Research has taught me many technical skills, along with numerous soft skills. These include working independently, managing my time with many competing demands, and coordinating with others in and outside the lab. I’ve also learned how to share knowledge with others as a TA. In addition, I’ve benefited from the comradery in the lab’s diverse and welcoming environment, and from regularly interacting with graduate students as well as the PI.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m currently finishing up my thesis, and hope to publish this work in a journal as the first author. I also was accepted to an undergraduate research experience at the Mayo Clinic, focused on regenerative science, for this summer. I’m on the pre-med track at UMass, and ultimately hope to work at the intersection of research and clinical work. In my experience, that is where the most exciting discoveries can be found.  

Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?

UMass Amherst is an R1 university with research conducted on every topic imaginable. In the Department of Kinesiology alone, there’s research being done on movement neuroscience, bioenergetics, physical activity, and much more. I’ve really enjoyed being part of that. I have found that many opportunities exist for undergraduates to get involved in research if they’re proactive about seeking out opportunities. PIs are driven by passion and a desire for discovery, and are always happy to discuss their work with students.  

Overall, UMass is a large school, but there are lots of smaller communities within it. If you put yourself out there, you’ll be able to find your people, whether it’s in a club, activity, or research lab.

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