Centenary students excel in CURIOUS program at LSU Health

L to R: Caymen Hawkins, Brianna Callicoatte, Daniel Hernandez, and Jonathan Okereke

SHREVEPORT, LA — Four Centenary students engaged in cutting-edge cardiovascular research this summer thanks to the CURIOUS program at LSU Health Shreveport. CURIOUS, which stands for Cardiovascular Undergraduate Research Initiative fOr Underrepresented Students, is a competitive eight-week summer research program funded by the National Institutes of Health and facilitated by faculty at LSU Health’s Center of Excellence for Cardiovascular Diseases and Sciences.

Centenary students Caymen Hawkins, Brianna Callicoatte, Daniel Hernandez, and Jonathan Okereke were accepted into the program and began their research projects under faculty mentors on June 1. On July 21, the 2021 CURIOUS cohort presented posters during “CURIOUS Research Day” to showcase some of their work before the program wraps up on July 23. Hernandez, a rising senior from Irving, Texas, won first place in the poster presentation session and Callicoatte, a Shreveport native and C.E. Byrd High School graduate, won second place. Both students will now have the opportunity to present their research at a national conference later this year.

“The CURIOUS program is such a great experience for our students as it allows them to think critically and systematically about science, thus creating new knowledge,” said Dr. Scott Chirhart, professor of biology at Centenary. “It’s science in action.”

The CURIOUS program creates opportunities for outstanding undergraduate students in the sciences to conduct guided research projects and learn from both faculty and graduate student mentors. The program is also specifically focused on expanding and diversifying cardiovascular research by targeting students who are currently underrepresented in the field. Throughout the summer, CURIOUS students have received weekly skills training in cardiovascular basics, career development, and graduate school preparation alongside their guided lab research in topics such as atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, cardiomyopathy, peripheral artery disease, microvascular dysfunction in response to cardiovascular disease risk factors, stroke and the vascular/heart-brain axis.

Daniel Hernandez, a double major in biology and neuroscience, has known for a long time that he has a passion to pursue medicine as a career and also has an interest in research. The CURIOUS program seemed like a perfect fit.

“When I read a flyer that helped to apply research both at the lab bench and at a clinical bedside, I was sold after that,” said Hernandez. “Dr. Jarett Richardson at Centenary helped me get in touch with my current Principal Investigator (PI) at LSU Health, Dr. Krista Rodgers.”

Hernandez’s award-winning project under Rodgers’ direction demonstrated that microglia, a type of cell located throughout the brain and spinal cord, are essential for neuronal replacement and improved functional recovery following cerebral ischemia. He performed immunohistochemistry, TTC staining, and analysis to investigate microglial inflammatory signaling following stroke in juvenile and adult mice models both with and without glial attenuation.

Jonathan Okereke, a Shreveport native and Loyola College Prep graduate who is currently a junior at Centenary, initially heard about the CURIOUS program from two recent Centenary alumni who are now students at LSU Health. He was ultimately motivated to apply by the prestige of the program and the level of competition among applicants.

“The most eye-opening aspect of the program was the complete difference between classroom learning and actual hands-on, laboratory experience,” said Okereke. “I have learned so many new skills and techniques during CURIOUS – more than I ever have studying for an exam or reading from a textbook. There is such a complete difference in the processing and application of new material, and that is a bit scary at first, especially when trying not to mess up and ruin your experiments, and thereby, your results. However, once you get comfortable, and practice your new habits and ideas, you realize that you can do and learn so much more than you would originally think, and that to me is such a rewarding and satisfying feeling.”

Okereke studied the protein Neurogranin and its effect on the overall health, regulation, and vitality of the cardiovascular system in Dr. Hyung Nam’s lab in LSU Health’s Department of Pharmacology, Toxicity, and Neuroscience. He believes that the courses he has taken at Centenary, from comparative politics to organic chemistry, prepared him well for the CURIOUS program.

“While I do believe that there is a stark difference between classroom learning and laboratory experience, I also believe that my Centenary education has helped to fundamentally bridge these two conflicting pillars together,” said Okereke. “Thinking and acting critically, under pressure, on a deadline, are skills that I acquired in my introductory classes, and further developed in my advanced courses during my undergraduate career.”

Okereke is pursuing degrees in biology and neuroscience at Centenary and plans to attend medical school after graduation, hopefully at LSU Health Shreveport. His current career interests include pediatrics and trauma surgery, but the CURIOUS program has sparked his interest in research and opened his eyes to the MD/PhD career path.

Caymen Hawkins, a rising sophomore at Centenary who grew up in Shreveport and graduated from Caddo Magnet High School, also aspires to a career in medicine and identified the CURIOUS program as an important opportunity. Like Okereke, he is pursuing degrees in biology and neuroscience.

“Participating in CURIOUS has helped me further fuel my drive to pursue medicine and diversified my experience in medicine so far,” said Hawkins. “The program has also helped me make connections in the medical field, allowing me insight into medical school and beyond. Learning about different processes such as Western blotting, cell cultures, and chemiluminescence has really been an intriguing part of the program.”

Hawkins worked in Dr. Chris Kevil’s lab in the Department of Pathology, analyzing the chemical aspects of cardiovascular disease.

“My project examined the effects of certain sulfide-releasing pharmaceutical drugs on the production of a chemical known as nitric oxide (NO),” explained Hawkins. “Sulfide is involved in the process of reducing the chemical nitrite (NO2-) to NO. NO essentially helps to increase blood flow, meaning these drugs can potentially help those who suffer from cardiovascular disease.”

Brianna Callicoatte is a junior at Centenary majoring in biology and neuroscience. She was attracted to the CURIOUS program because of the opportunity to work in one of her majors, neuroscience, and because of the valuable hands-on experiences she will be able to take into medical school in the future.

Callicoatte worked in Dr. Elizabeth Disbrow’s neuroimaging lab on a project examining the vascular contributions to cognitive deficits seen in dementia. The research explores the linkage of brain and heart health for cognitively impaired individuals. While the CURIOUS program has been full of new experiences and challenges, Callicoatte said that she has felt comfortable due to her Centenary preparation.

“I not only feel prepared, but I feel as though I have been able to excel with the knowledge I have gained at Centenary; whether it be academic or lab based,” said Callicoatte.

More information on the LSU Health CURIOUS program is available at lsuhs.edu.


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