UNT senior biological sciences major Adrian Cadar likes to tell the story about how a childhood fishing trip led to his intense curiosity about the heart muscle.
"I was always interested in how things worked. But my fascination with the heart began on a fishing trip with my father," Cadar says. "I was bored waiting for the fish to bite, but I got really excited about the cleaning process. I remember seeing a heart for the first time, and how it kept beating, even after it was removed from the fish's body. That was very interesting to me."
So he kept learning about the heart, studying diagrams, watching videos – even observing a few open-heart surgeries while he was a high school student.
Helping babies get better
His quest to learn all he can about the heart may one day lead to an improved treatment for premature babies born with a condition called patent ductus arteriosus which affects 8 out of 1,000 premature newborns.
During the embryonic stage, when oxygen is provided to the fetus through the umbilical cord instead of the lungs, the heart has a tiny shunt – the ductus arteriosus – that allows blood to bypass the developing lungs and go directly to the placenta. When a baby is born and takes its first breath of air, the ductus arteriosus undergoes physiological and morphological changes to seal itself shut. In most cases, the ductus closes permanently within a day or two.
But in premature babies, that process doesn't always happen automatically, leaving patent ductus arteriosus, or an open shunt. The condition abnormally allows blood to flow between the aorta and pulmonary artery, two major blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart.
The chicken and the egg
At UNT, in the research lab of Ed Dzialowski, associate professor of biological sciences, Cadar is researching the mechanisms that cause the closure of the ductus arteriosus in the chicken embryo in response to environmental stress such as lack of oxygen.
"We use chickens because the whole mechanism is self-contained inside the egg and independent of maternal influence," Cadar explains. "Mammals have such a short time frame before the ductus closes, but it is much longer in chickens. It takes about 21 days for an egg to hatch, and in chickens, the DA begins closing before it hatches, at around day 19."
His experiments examine the effects of different levels of oxygen on the ductus arteriosus and how it reacts to different kinds of drug treatments to understand the mechanisms controlling the ductus contraction.
"Our goal is to treat the heart defect with pharmaceuticals so fewer premature babies have to endure surgery and risk further complications," he says.
Dzialowski's research examines the role of the environment and genetics on the ecology, physiology, and development of organisms. His lab and research is part of UNT's Developmental Physiology and Genetics research cluster, which is a group of seven faculty members working to expand the physiology and genetics of development as a base for pure and applied health-related research.
Cadar, who works as an undergraduate research assistant in the lab as part of the McNair Scholars program, says working with Dzialowski "has been a life-changing experience."
"He is open to my ideas and trusts me to figure out an experiment and get it working," he says. "The research we're doing on patent ductus arteriosus allows me to be in the lab four to five hours a day, my favorite place to be."
After he graduates this coming May, Cadar plans to attend Oxford University and earn a PhD in cardiovascular medicine. From there, he intends to earn an M.D. and one day specialize in cardiovascular surgery in a research-based teaching hospital.
The lessons of Sesame Street
Cadar, who was born in Lewisville and grew up in Denton, is the son of a Romanian father and Guatemalan mother. His father was forced into military service as soon as he finished boarding school and his mother had to leave school to begin working after the 3rd grade.
"When they came here, neither of my parents spoke any English," he says. "My father learned Spanish from my mother so when I was growing up we spoke Spanish at home and I learned English by watching Sesame Street and Barney on TV."
He grew up knowing his parents wished they had had opportunities for higher education and how they wanted those opportunities for their son.
"When my mother got the job here at UNT, everything changed from day one," he says.
Paying for college
Cadar's mother, Dina Maria , works at Champs Dining Hall and her UNT employment makes Cadar eligible for the Faculty/Staff/Retiree/Dependent Educational Scholarship.
"That covered about 65 percent of my college expenses," Cadar says. "The rest I covered with external scholarships and with money I earned working for G-Force."
G-Force is a UNT organization that encourages and works to create a "college-going culture." Members visit area high schools and work closely with 9-12th grade students to teach them how to enroll in any college or university.
He is one of three UNT students who recently received awards from the national Hispanic Scholarship Fund, considered the premier national scholarship agency serving Hispanic students.
"After I earn my M.D. and Ph.D., I hope to inspire future first-generation college students to become scientists and medical professionals," he says. "I want to help them look at things and learn how to figure out what's going on. I want to help install a new foundation of scientists by being a helpful mentor like mine were to me."