Graduate Student Mixes Brains and Brawn at ‘American Ninja Warrior’ Watch Party

Biochemistry Ph.D. student Zachary Kemmerer’s unique combination of science and strength has earned him the title “The Science Ninja.” Kemmerer’s skills are so profound that he’s found himself on the hit show “American Ninja Warrior,” and he is using his prowess to help others engage with biochemistry.

To honor the airing of his episode, a watch party will take place at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 13 at the Union South Prairie Fire Cafe. All are invited to attend. “American Ninja Warrior” is a competition show, originally from Japan, where competitors use their physical abilities to navigate a complex series of obstacle courses, which increase in difficulty.

Schedule of June 13 watch partyTo Kemmerer, science and athleticism aren’t mutually exclusive identities and he has capitalized on his experience with “American Ninja Warrior” to engage adults in science outreach. His watch party on Monday, June 13 will feature science activities for adults and an opportunity to learn how to get involved in science outreach and mentoring through organizations like Adult Role Models in Science (ARMS) and Beat the Streets.

“Through being an athlete I have honed this great work ethic that I apply to the scientific and mentoring work that I do,” says Kemmerer, who is a student in the Integrated Program in Biochemistry (IPiB). “Growing up, many of my role models were scientists and that helped foster an interest in it. I have committed to science like I have committed to being an athlete.”

In the Pagliarini Lab, Kemmerer researches mitochondria, tiny organs — called organelles — inside cells. They are colloquially called “the powerhouse of the cell” because they are primarily responsible for energy production at the cellular level. The leader of the lab, David Pagliarini, jokes that he may have to study Kemmerer to see if he has special mitochondria that make him “The Science Ninja.”

More specifically, the Pagliarini Lab studies proteins in mitochondria that haven’t yet been characterized. Kemmerer explains how the research is analogous to trying to fix a car when the auto shop doesn’t know much about the parts. He says knowing about these proteins can be key to developing therapeutic treatments for people who have an illness due to mutations in their DNA that cause their mitochondria to not function properly.

Kemmerer’s line of research almost perfectly parallels his commitment to being an athlete. His knowledge of how energy is produced on a molecular level, coupled with an active lifestyle, gives him a unique perspective.

“I have always been an athlete and I just gave 110% to applying for this competition and it all fell into place,” he says. “As an athlete, it’s really neat knowing how cells work and how the body is functioning using its cells’ mitochondria. I can see it in the lab and feel it when I work out. I’ll be on a run and start thinking about how my body is producing my energy and it’s pretty amazing.”