Research Update

August 2019

Summer Science Program 2019

This year’s Summer Science Program provided 22 outstanding students the experience of the clinical and the research aspects of a career in academic medicine.   

This summer, the UAMS Department of Pediatrics/ACRI Summer Science Program provided 22 outstanding students the experience of a career in academic medicine—in both the clinical and the research aspects. These students spent June and July shadowing physicians, attending rounds and clinics, and touring different hospital units, as well as participating in mentored research projects involving children’s health. Faculty from various pediatric subspecialties taught basic science and clinical research techniques and helped the students gain exposure to clinical medicine. In addition, the Summer Science Program hosted a twice-a-week lecture series focusing on various aspects of academic medicine, graduate school, medical school, residency, research, and clinical medicine for its participants. At the end of the program, each student gave a scientific presentation on his or her mentored research project.

Hayden Bowman – Ouachita Baptist University

Hayden Bowman worked to identify genetic changes that cause vascular anomalies to grow.

Hayden Bowman received a complete overview of the work of his mentor, Graham Strub, MD, an Assistant Professor in the Pediatric Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Department of UAMS, this summer. Dr. Strub’s principal research interest is the development of molecular biology tools to guide surgical decision making, specifically, in regards to vascular anomalies.

Vascular anomalies are abnormal growths of blood vessels that can range from birthmarks to large lesions. Lesions, when located in the head and neck area, may affect breathing and eating. Though few medications are available for treatment, they are generally ineffective; therefore, surgery is often a treatment method.

Hayden, a senior biomedical sciences major at Ouachita Baptist University, shadowed Dr. Strub with his patients in the ENT Clinic. He observed the diagnoses of patients with vascular anomalies and learned of the treatment plans recommended by Dr. Strub. In some cases where surgical intervention was required, Hayden was able to view the procedure in the operating room. With approval, Dr. Strub would collect tissue samples during surgery for his experimental work in developing non-surgical interventions.

Hayden examined these samples in the Arkansas Vascular Biology Program laboratory to detect genetic changes in vascular anomalies that cause them to grow. Identifying the genetic differences between collected and normal tissues allows Dr. Strub to discover the genes that cause these masses to grow. These experiments help identify new molecular treatments to target these genes non-surgically.

Hayden describes Dr. Strub as a “fantastic mentor” that allowed him to see the different aspects of what he does. Dr. Strub noted Hayden’s enthusiasm and skill, “He could pick up microbiology techniques quickly and carry on experiments independently.” Hayden, who is from Searcy, plans to attend medical school after graduating from OBU next year.

Caroline Harrelson – Episcopal Collegiate School

Caroline Harrelson worked to better understand the use of health care resources by ventilator-dependent children to develop strategies to decrease preventable hospital readmissions.

Advances in medical care and treatment for children with severe respiratory illnesses have led to increased survival rates. Though these children are discharged, they still have a critical medical condition, and many require continued ventilation at home. However, many children on home ventilation are readmitted to the hospital. Half of the readmissions for ventilator-dependent children occur within 3 months of discharge, and almost 30% of these children visited the emergency department as soon as 30 days after their initial release from the hospital.

With Dr. Agarwal’s guidance, Caroline reviewed electronic medical records of children with tracheostomy and invasive ventilation from the past year and a half. She helped create a HIPAA-compliant database for information from these records. Reports from the database presented an overview of this patient population, including demographics, diagnosis, other existing conditions, length of initial hospital stay, readmission after initial discharge, and final outcomes.

Caroline’s study showed that patients discharged on ventilation have significant utilization of health care resources in terms of the initial length of stay and frequent hospitalization. A better understanding of health care utilization by ventilator-dependent children can aid Dr. Agarwal to develop strategies to reduce the length of hospital stay and to decrease preventable readmissions for these children.

Caroline enjoyed her two-month experience noting that Dr. Agarwal clearly explained the conditions and needs of pediatric pulmonary patients. Dr. Agarwal, an Associate Professor of Pediatric Pulmonary in the UAMS Department of Pediatrics, found Caroline to an exceptional high school student who quickly understood the terminology and concepts she encountered. Caroline is considering universities in Arkansas, Texas, and Colorado for pre-medical studies prior to medical school, in which she has an interest in cardiovascular disease.

Robert Shannon – Episcopal Collegiate School

Robert Shannon assisted in developing laboratory techniques for experiments using aortic tissue.

This summer, high school senior Robert Shannon worked hands-on in the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center laboratory of ACNC Investigator Keshari Thakali, PhD. Among the research interests of the lab is understanding how perivascular adipose tissue (fat tissue surrounding blood vessels) controls vascular function and how it is related to cardiovascular disease. A main focus of Dr. Thakali’s laboratory is understanding how in utero exposure to maternal obesity can alter the precursor cells that become perivascular adipose tissue and thus alter perivascular adipose tissue function. Robert assisted with learning if the function of perivascular adipose tissue can be changed through dietary or physical activity interventions before or during pregnancy to improve cardiovascular outcome in offspring.

In the laboratory, Robert explanted aortic tissue. In other words, he dissected aortic tissue from mice and stimulating tissue growth in cell culture. The aorta of a mouse is generally not bigger than the tip of a fine-point ballpoint pen. Robert then further dissected each aorta under a microscope to isolate the needed tissue. During culturing, he added growth factors and drugs to determine if the aortic cells can express perivascular adipose tissue precursor genes. The laboratory skills he used must be precise and performed under sterile conditions to ensure integrity of the experimental results. Importantly, Robert developed these techniques for Dr. Thakali’s laboratory for use in future experiments.

Through his Summer Science Program experience, Robert has taken skills he has learned in his Episcopal Collegiate School laboratory and applied them in a scientific setting. Clinically, Robert shadowed physicians in pediatric neurology, and he followed pediatric neurosurgeons including observing surgery this summer.

Robert appreciated the support and advice of his mentor, Dr. Thakali, an Assistant Professor of Developmental Nutrition in the UAMS Department of Pediatrics. He said she has taught him much this summer and appreciated her patience. Dr. Thakali spoke highly of Robert. She stated he was diligent and, after some guidance, began working independently quickly.

Robert learned about the Summer Science Program through Chapel presentations by Episcopal Collegiate School students who participated in the program last year. Robert plans on pre-med studies in college. He is considering the University of Arkansas, Hendrix College, University of Missouri, and Washington University for attendance after graduation.

About the Summer Science Program

Dr. Robert Fiser, Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics (1975 to 1994), created the Summer Science Program in 1989 to encourage Arkansas college students to pursue careers in medicine and science. Initially, a few college students worked in various research laboratories in the department. Throughout the history of this program, it has been funded using seed money from drug companies, then private companies and a pediatric clinic, and currently through the UAMS Department of Pediatrics, Arkansas Children’s Research Institute, and the Stella Boyle Smith Trust (which sponsors two Stella Boyle Smith Summer Scholars from Episcopal Collegiate School)—testimony to the broad range of research and clinical support for this program.

Jenny Kubacak is the Coordinator of the Summer Science Program. Since 1992, approximately 300 students and over 100 pediatric research faculty members have participated in the program. This year, the program selected its participants from more than 146 applications and received the support of 23 faculty members serving as mentors. The Summer Science Program has an application deadline of February 29, 2020, for next year’s participants.

NIH Awards $3.1 Million Research Grant to Xiawei Ou, PhD

The National Institutes of Health has awarded Xiawei Ou, PhD, $3.1 million for his proposal, “Effects of Maternal Obesity and Inflammation on Offspring Brain Development.” Funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, the 5-year study will examine how maternal obesity during pregnancy influences infant brain development. Dr. Ou and his team will determine which brain structures and functions are impacted, how long the effects last, and the underlying processes leading to these changes. Dr. Ou is an Associate Professor of radiology and pediatrics at UAMS College of Medicine and an inaugural project leader in ACRI’s Center for Translational Pediatric Research (P20GM121293), which provided infrastructure and guidance to propel the study. Read the Arkansas Children’s media release here.

TRI Names Dr. Tara Johnson as a New KL2 Scholar

Tara Johnson, MD, PhD, named a mentored research career development scholar.

Tara Johnson, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor, Pediatric Neurology, has received KL2 Mentored Research Career Development Scholar Award from the UAMS Translational Research Institute (TRI). Her project is “Implementation and Quantification of the General Movement Assessment for Early Detection of Neurodevelopmental Disabilities in Infants.” Dr. Johnson is the Founding Director of the Arkansas Children’s Biomedical Innovations Program, and her research focuses on the early identification of infants at high risk for the development of cerebral palsy and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Through her KL2 Award project, Dr. Johnson will transform current clinical practice at ACH by implementing the General Movement Assessment (GMA), a low-cost diagnostic tool, to identify neurodevelopmental disabilities at an earlier age in high-risk infants. By further enhancing qualitative assessments with quantitative engineering methods, she will advance the technical capability of the GMA on a larger scale through her novel artificial-intelligence-based analysis of the general movements in healthy and high-risk infants. This work will promote the initiation of proven therapies at a younger age, leading to improved outcomes in children with neurodevelopmental disabilities.

Successful completion of Dr. Johnson’s work will bring novel approaches to the bedside for early identification and treatment of children with neurodevelopmental disabilities. Dr. Johnson is poised to further develop her knowledge in engineering and clinical research to further benefit individuals from her translational study. Through her translational research, Dr. Johnson will transform the standard of care for high-risk infants by incorporating the GMA into day-to-day clinical care for these infants at ACH. This achievement will outperform current analyses, ultimately reaching beyond ACH to be adopted worldwide.

The KL2 Scholar program provides two years of didactic and mentored research training to junior faculty who are committed to academic careers in multidisciplinary clinical or translational research. Those selected for the program receive 75% salary support and up to $25,000 per year for research, tuition, travel expenses, and education materials. In addition to TRI funding, support for this KL2 cycle is also provided by Arkansas Children's Research Institute and the Arkansas Breast Cancer Research Program.

 Dr. Johnson is one of five scholars chosen for a KL2 award from a strong pool of eleven applicants. Applications were reviewed by a Study Section and finalists were interviewed by senior members of the panel. The other selected scholars are Stephanie Kennon-McGill, PhD, College of Public Health, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health (“Fetal Exposure to Cannabinoids: Exposure, Methylation and Neurodevelopmental Effects”); Pearman Parker, PhD, MPH, RN, College of Nursing, Department of Nursing Science (“An exploration of the mental health needs of young women with breast cancer and implications for developing patient educational materials”); Isabel Racine-Miousse, PhD, College of Medicine, Department of Biochemistry (“Decreasing Methionine Intake to Improve Survival in Patients with Metastatic Melanoma”); and Jennifer Vincenzo, PhD, MPH, PT, College of Health Professions, Department of Physical Therapy (“Development of a Falls Prevention Self-Management Plan to Improve Older Adults Adherence to Prevention Strategies after Community-Based Falls Risk Screenings”).

ACRI Welcomes Craig Porter, PhD

Craig Porter, PhD

This summer, Craig Porter, PhD, joined the Section of Developmental Nutrition in the Department of Pediatrics and the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center. He comes to ACRI from the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was an Associate Professor within the Department of Surgery and the Director of the Metabolism Unit at Shriners Hospitals for Children – Galveston. At Shriners Hospitals for Children - Galveston he spent much of the last 8 years studying the metabolic impact of severe burn injuries. There he developed an interest in mitochondria, studying its role in the metabolic stress response to severe burn injuries.

Though his work in Galveston was a hugely rewarding experience, Dr. Porter will now be focusing his efforts on studying obesity. He has a passion for understanding the impact of nutrition, physical activity, and chronic disease on cellular energetics that is well suited at ACRI. Dr. Porter is excited to establish a bioenergetics-themed research program to focus on this endeavor and to support colleagues interested in quantifying mitochondrial function in tissue samples or cells. He noted, “I hope that my research can offer some solutions to help manage or even prevent obesity and associated metabolic phenotype.”

Dr. Porter’s research path finds its roots in his high school desire to become a professional rugby player. He was fascinated by the influence of training and nutrition on athletic performance. His undergraduate studies were in physiology, sports sciences, and nutrition at the University of Glasgow. During the latter part of his collegiate education at the University of Nottingham, Dr. Porter’s interests shifted towards pathophysiology and how exercise and nutrition may be adjunct therapies for a number of illnesses that are associated with muscle wasting, metabolic dysfunction and weakness/frailty. We are pleased to have Dr. Porter continue his research at ACRI.

ACRI Hosts Successful AAALAC Site Visit

Since 2001, ACRI has been accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC), a private, nonprofit organization that promotes the humane treatment of animals in science through voluntary accreditation and assessment programs. To maintain AAALAC accreditation, ACRI Division of Animal Research undergoes a comprehensive, extensive evaluation of laboratory animal care and use in its biomedical pediatric research program every three years. AAALAC conducted its most recent site visit to ACRI in July to review our institutional support, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), the management of animal research, and the management of animal care and husbandry.

The site visit consisted of a comprehensive review of documentation detailing the aspects of ACRI’s program management and procedures. The review was followed by a site visit of the animal facility. The AAALAC site visit team met with the IACUC and evaluated it and their role in ACRI Division of Animal Research. Next, the AAALAC team went into an executive session to review and observe additional program management and procedural issues. The AAALAC site visit team concluded the day with an exit briefing with top-level institutional officials to formally present their review and findings.

The team noted strong administrative leadership and institutional support, well-managed and operated facilities, knowledgeable and experienced staff, and customer-friendly and oriented program. As ACRI has recently completed a $2.8 million upgrade of the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system of the animal facility, an up-to-date report of the upgrade will be submitted to AAALAC. The site visit team will recommend ACRI for continued full AAALAC accreditation, and a final ruling will be made by the AAALAC Council on Accreditation in September with notice to follow in November.

More than 1,000 companies, universities, hospitals, government agencies and other research institutions in 47 countries have earned AAALAC accreditation, demonstrating their commitment to responsible animal care and use. These institutions volunteer to participate in AAALAC's program, in addition to complying with the local, state, and federal laws that regulate animal research.

Congratulations to Blake Harrison, Director of Animal Operations, and his team for the hard work and commitment to ensure responsible animal care and use that resulted in another successful AAALAC site visit.

Brian Piccolo, PhD

ASN Appoints Dr. Brian Piccolo to Inaugural Statistical Review Board

The American Society for Nutrition (ASN), the world’s premier nutrition science society, has appointed Brian Piccolo, PhD, of the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center (ACNC) to its inaugural Statistical Review Board (SRB). As ASN publishes several high-impact journals, it sought out experts in statistics and data scientists to form a first-ever SRB for its journal editors to assess the quality of manuscript stats and “omics” analysis. The SRB will provide ASN journals with a shared pool of experts to evaluate the appropriateness of new or complex statistical methods, to make recommendations to improve the conduct and reporting of statistical analyses, and to ensure that the highest standards are upheld when reviewing clinical studies, meta-analyses, and other nutrition research.

Dr. Piccolo, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, is among 18 elite appointees from outstanding institutions across the US to the review board. “This appointment speaks to Brian’s growing stature as a young investigator and the value of his unique expertise that blends traditional nutrition science and metabolism, statistics, and modeling of metabolomics and microbiomics data,” noted ACNC Director Sean Adams, PhD. Dr. Piccolo joined the ACNC in 2015. Before joining ACNC, he began his postdoctoral training as a USDA-awarded Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Western Human Nutrition Research Center located at the University of California, Davis.

Find Out About Opportunities to Participate in Research

Information on currently enrolling clinical studies at ACRI is available at ACH's Clinical Trials Webpage. Interested families can voluntarily join ACRI’s Research Registry at to be contacted about pediatric clinical research. To receive Text Alerts about currently enrolling clinical research studies, interested persons can text RESEARCH to 411247 (message and data rates may apply; terms and conditions at

ACRI Researcher-Specific Announcements

Announcements that are specific to ACRI/ACH Campus Researchers may be found at the Weekly Research Update page: