Student Profile - Crissie Vandehoef

Biology, chemistry major pursues healing research

A frightening medical diagnosis at age 14 prompted Crissie Vandehoef to veer off course academically for a few years. Eventually, she found her way toCrissie Vandehoef Lamar University where a variety of opportunities have put her on the path toward a future as a biomedical researcher.

Vandehoef, a biology and chemistry major from Port Neches, was selected as one of Lamar University’s two David J. Beck Fellows for 2013. The Beck Fellowship covers all expenses including tuition, fees, books and on-campus room and board for one year, along with up to $10,000 for a summer project. Vandehoef will spend her summer as a research assistant at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) investigating ankylosing spondylitis, the chronic inflammatory disease that she was diagnosed with six years ago.

Vandehoef said she has had trouble finding scientific information on her disease and thought focusing on it as a research interest would be advantageous. “I want to do something to further cures and treatment because I don’t like the treatment options that are available,” she said.

At NIAMS, she will work with Robert Colbert, deputy clinical director and chief of the Pediatric Translational Research Branch. In researching her disease, Vandehoef came across information on Colbert as a top scientist in the field and contacted him to ask about research opportunities. He invited her to work in his lab for the summer and wrote a recommendation for her fellowship application.

This will not be Vandehoef’s first foray into scientific research. After taking a few basics at Lamar State College-Port Arthur, she transferred to Lamar University in summer 2011 and quickly noticed flyers for LU’s STAIRSTEP program. That fall, she began participating in the program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation to help undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics improve their research and presentation skills.

With her mentor Christopher Martin, associate professor of chemistry, Vandehoef has worked on green chemistry research to redesign organic chemistry labs to improve yields and reduce waste. Since June, she also has been performing computational chemistry research working with researchers in Argentina on computer simulations to calculate the energy required for a variety of reactions. Vandehoef will present that research in April at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans.

“I want to get more into biology research, but I’ve already made the connections in chemistry, and you don’t want to leave a project open ended,” Vandehoef said. “I’ve asked Dr. Colbert to give me a list of procedures I should know. I’ll work with the biology professors at Lamar this spring to get caught up so that when I get to the NIH I’m not starting with nothing to offer.”

Additionally, Vandehoef serves as vice president of LU’s Student Association of the American Chemical Society and is a member of the American MedicalCrissie Vandehoef in lab Student Association on campus. She has also tutored through the STARS and STAIRSTEP programs at Lamar.

Vandehoef’s drive and focus today contrast sharply with her life during her high school years when her diagnosis forced her to give up the competitive sports she enjoyed. “I went through some hard times in high school,” she said. “I ended up going off the deep end for a while, but I think it has helped me grow.”

Vandehoef said she is empathetic toward people from a variety of backgrounds as a result of her experiences and interactions during her wild phase and her struggles with ankylosing spondylitis. She ended up dropping out of high school and getting her diploma through a drop-out recovery program in Louisiana. Near the end of that period of her life, she met her husband, Nick, who is now a student at Lamar Institute of Technology.

“We kind of helped each other clean up our acts,” she said. Now they enjoy sharing parenting responsibilities for his 3-year-old daughter, Olivia, with Olivia’s mother and stepfather, with whom they have a good relationship. In fact, the entire family hopes to move with Vandehoef when she begins an MD/PhD program after graduating from LU. She will take her admissions test and begin applying for programs in the spring.

In applying for highly competitive MD/PhD programs, Vandehoef expects her research experience and the strong relationships she has built with LU professors to provide a significant advantage. The experience she gained at Lamar working with Martin in STAIRSTEP laid the groundwork while her upcoming work at the NIH made possible by the Beck Fellowship will provide even more impressive knowledge and credentials.

“Getting the Beck Fellowship and the opportunity to work at the NIH has made getting into a MD/PhD program seem like a possibility, not just a lofty goal,” Vandehoef said. “With an MD/PhD, you can teach at a medical school and do your research there. I’ve definitely thought pretty hard about that because I enjoy teaching. I enjoy helping people understand things.”