Syracuse University Magazine

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Justin Elkhechen

Cellular Explorations

Justin Elkhechen ’15 has long been fascinated with the workings of the human body. A former high school baseball and soccer player, he says his love for sports fuels his desire to understand the intricacies of how we function, especially in the cellular and molecular realms. “The human body is so remarkable on so many levels,” he says. “I wanted to explore that here in much more detail.”

That thirst for exploration has led Elkhechen, a biochemistry major from Fort Lee, New Jersey, to perform research at the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute (SBI) and at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, where he spent summer 2013 as an Amgen Scholar, part of a prestigious national program that promotes undergraduate research. The experiences have also inspired his plans to head off to medical school next fall with a long-term goal of focusing on orthopedics. “The research I’ve done is really valuable to me,” he says. “It is a real privilege to be involved in.”

For Elkhechen, the catalyst that triggered his entrance into research was the interdisciplinary course Stem Cells in Society. “Justin really stood out as a student who was very motivated to dig deeper into the topics we were covering,” says biomedical and chemical engineering professor James Henderson, who co-taught the course. Through the class, Elkhechen learned about Henderson’s research at SBI and joined his lab as a sophomore. He’s currently working on an Honors research pro­ject that involves understanding how changes in the fiber alignments of shape-memory polymers can influence the migratory patterns of breast cancer cells and murine stem cells. In the lab, Elkhechen develops fibrous polymeric scaffolds that, when exposed to temperature shifts, change shape during cell culture, providing the opportunity to study how the cells respond to alterations in the fibers. Those arranged in one direction, for instance, can facilitate cancer cell migration to surrounding tissue, leading to metastasis. Likewise, a random alignment can inhibit cell movement. “It’s a challenging area of research and he approaches it with a lot of motivation and ability,” Henderson says.

Elkhechen credits the Amgen program for further elevating his research skills. His mentors at Stanford, Dr. Marius Wernig and Dr. Sean Wu, involved him in a collaborative research project designed to generate Purkinje fibers, which are responsible for the heart’s conduction system. “The program was a phenomenal experience,” he says. “It was a highlight of my college career.”

While research has been front and center for Elkhechen, he readily acknowledges how much he enjoys the balance of academics and social life at SU. An avid Orange sports fan, he has also worked for SU Ambulance, serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Team and the college’s Academic Integrity Board, and is president of Shadows of Health, which links students interested in the health field with health professionals. Through it all, Elkhechen credits his parents for their endless encouragement and inspiration. “My parents came here as immigrants [his father is from Lebanon; his mother, Venezuela],” he says. “They worked as hard as they possibly could to establish themselves in this country. They inspire me to be the best I can in something I’m passionate about.”                —Jay Cox