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New UTSA Program Connects Veterans With Research Focused On Battlefield Trauma

Curtis Creech and his research mentor Katerina Stujkova investigate cell constructs in a lab at UTSA.
Carson Frame | TPR News
Curtis Creech and his research mentor Katerina Stujkova investigate cell constructs in a lab at UTSA.

The National Science Foundation has awarded UTSA more than $300,000 to expand a research pipeline to help active-duty soldiers and military veterans. The BRAVe program recruits undergraduates — many of whom have served — to work on biomedical engineering projects related to battlefield trauma care.

Curtis Creech is one of the ten students participating in the program this summer. The 45-year-old Army veteran and biomedical engineering student moved easily between different areas of a research lab at UTSA. Though he was only on campus for several weeks, he knew his way around. 

“We’re in a room where multiple researchers can come in and use microscopes… These things are very powerful and very — how can I put it? — Expensive,” he said. 

He walked into a dark imaging room and honed in on brain cells under a microscope. The image looked like a Jackson Pollock painting, with flecks of blue and red. 

“What we’re looking at — these little blue lines and blue dots — those are neurons. The red lines are blood vessels that are actually within the cell,” Creech explained. 

He and his research mentor are working to develop what’s known as an “organ on a chip.” The idea is to build small tissues that can be used to test drugs and other treatments. But part of the challenge in growing tissue is making sure it has blood flow — and that’s one of the problems that UTSA’s biomedical engineering department is trying to solve.

A microscope image of neural tissue infused with vasculature.
Credit Carson Frame | Texas Public Radio
A microscope image of neural tissue infused with vasculature.

This type of research could eventually have applications for battlefield trauma and veterans care. For example, “brains on a chip” may be used to test the effectiveness of treatment for traumatic brain injury and PTSD. Regenerative medicine could also benefit from these developments, Creech said. 

“For example, blast injuries that may have taken pieces of bone or muscle away...We can take the patient's own cells and then grow that tissue back, and then transplant it back into the body in order to heal traumatic injuries.”

Creech is enrolled full-time at the University of Virginia, but was drawn to UTSA’s BRAVe program for the summer in part because it was looking for people like him. He also started his military career at Lackland Air Force Base, and he considered San Antonio a second home. 

“What drew me to it was the fact that they were specifically recruiting veterans and active duty military to come work on veteran and military related biomedical research,” he said. 

After spending five years as an Army linguist, Creech worked for more than a decade as a counter-terrorism contractor, with deployments to the Middle East and South Asia. He plans to pursue a career in neural engineering, with the hope of contributing to the health of his fellow comrades in arms. He's 45, and this is his first foray into college life.

His research mentor, Katerina Stujkova, appreciated his worldliness.

“I mean, he has great experience in his life and everything he’s gone through. In any sense, I admire what they (service members) do,” she said.

But transitioning from the battlefield to the classroom can be daunting for veterans, according to Dr. Eric Brey, chair of UTSA’s biomedical engineering department. 

Dr. Eric Brey, chair of the biomedical engineering department at UTSA and creator of the BRAVe program.
Credit Carson Frame | Texas Public Radio
Dr. Eric Brey, chair of the biomedical engineering department at UTSA and creator of the BRAVe program.

“You're coming back to an environment where you are not the standard. You’re not the typical,” he said. Most of the students in class finished high school last year, and they're 18, and they've never served in the military. Maybe never been overseas, or certainly not to that level. So it is a very different experience.”

Brey created the 10-week BRAVe program to help attract and retain veteran students, as well as other at-risk populations, including those at two-year colleges and those who haven’t declared majors. 

“There are a lot of people who have technical expertise from the military — and they're trying to figure out what to do, career-wise, after they separate,” he said. “A lot of them, if they're medical, go into clinical work: nurses, anesthetists, things like that. But biomedical engineering is a really exciting opportunity. I'd been thinking for a while… ‘How do we engage that community?' "

For Brey, recruiting and retaining veteran students is an important, though sometimes difficult, task. Of the current BRAVe participants, 30% are veterans. 

“Veterans are an important student population. I don't think we appreciate how different it is. I think some of these other groups…there's a lot of interest and effort in trying to understand how can we help them succeed. I don't know that it's been thought about to the same level with veterans,” Brey said.

The BRAVe program will fund a total of 30 undergraduates over three years. It pairs participants with faculty members and graduate mentors and facilitates research experiences within San Antonio’s military health system. Students have already interacted with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Fort Sam Houston and the South Texas Veterans Healthcare System.

At the end of each program cycle, undergraduates will present their research work to the National Biomedical Engineering Society.

Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.