Student Spotlight: Blake Kruger
It’s not hard to pin down what makes Ogden Honors College junior Blake Kruger so special. He’s on track to hit all four of the themes that we encourage Ogden Honors students to pursue while at LSU: he was a Louisiana Service and Leadership (LASAL) Scholar; studied abroad in Germany for a year; is an Ogden Leader; and did we mention that he’s doing some incredible research for his Honors thesis that he hopes will have health benefits for Louisianans in traditionally underrepresented communities?
When asked about Blake, Ogden Honors College Dean Jonathan Earle summed up his accomplishments perfectly: “Blake has jumped into the Honors College with both feet—he’s put in time serving the community, studied abroad, and proposed a phenomenal project as an Ogden Leader,” said Dean Earle. “I think he’s going to make great discoveries, both as an undergraduate researcher and in his further medical studies."
It’s Blake’s research, in particular, that piqued our interest. After all, it was funding through the Ogden Student Leaders program that allowed him to start his research, and it could, he hopes, have an enormous impact on the treatment of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a type of cancer for which immunosuppressed patients such as the HIV-positive are particularly at risk. Blake recently took the time to chat with us about what got him interested in his thesis research and how the Ogden Honors College helped that happen.
Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you end up at LSU?
All of my family is originally South African and my dad came to LSU for his Ph.D. in geography and cultural anthropology. When it came time to look at universities, I always remembered LSU and the culture, food and people associated with Louisiana. LSU was a natural choice for me.
How did you become interested in your current line of research?
So there was a line of development that led to what I’m working on now. When I got to LSU, I knew I wanted to go into science and chemistry, and somehow I wanted to incorporate research into what I was doing. So the big question was, “How do I incorporate research into my studies and how do I make it personally fulfilling?” I started off working in LSU Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Louis Haber’s lab doing nanoparticle research. This particular research was bench science, so it was basic science in the sense that it was contributing to the scientific knowledge base. I loved the work and I loved working in the lab, but I felt as though something fundamentally important to me as an individual was missing. Dr. Granger Babcock and Cindy Seghers, LASAL Scholars program coordinators, helped me key into what it was that was really important to me and what it turned out to be was people. I did not have some way to connect to people. So through a number of internships and clinical experiences that I had, I figured out that I wanted my research to somehow impact people directly.
So how did that discovery translate into your thesis research?
Well, to sum up my work in a nutshell, it’s essentially a treatment for underprivileged and traditionally underrepresented minorities in the state of Louisiana and the world at large. The reason I’ve done the research that I have is because Kaposi’s Sarcoma is a large issue in African American populations and, more precisely, in males who engage in same-sex sexual contact. The new technologies that have come about allow for us to update a very outdated therapy for something that can be used for a lot of societal good.
Can you explain what Kaposi’s Sarcoma is and how it relates to your research?
What makes this treatment I’m working on particularly germane to these traditionally underrepresented communities is, if you look at HIV as an illness, there is no question that there is a correlation between the illness and the African American race. It’s not a question—it’s been proven in a number of studies—69% of the diagnosed in Louisiana are African American. The next step to that is of the people that make up our general populace, the vast majority have this latent virus called Human Herpes Virus-8. So, while these different moving parts seem relatively disconnected, the thing that connects them is when you have traditionally underrepresented communities who are afflicted with HIV and are co-infected with Human Herpes Virus-8, this viral infection produces Kaposi’s Sarcoma. It’s a dermal cancer that, after it progresses past a certain stage, is lethal. This is a problem that is generally not faced by white groups in America. So you have this kind of minority/majority dichotomy even within medicine and healthcare. This issue, compounded with healthcare inequity in the state of Louisiana, is a huge problem. When you look at the fact that the state of Louisiana alone accounts for 43,335 cases of HIV/AIDS combined in the United States as a whole, it’s staggering. Considering all of these different factors, a new therapy for Kaposi’s Sarcoma is a must. And one last point—the gold-standard therapy for Kaposi sarcoma is old enough to drink at about 20 or 21 years old.
That’s so interesting. So how does it work?
To sum up the research, you have layered metal nanoparticles that are able to heat up when irradiated with a certain wavelength of light. This breaks a special link between the nanoparticle and the si-RNA of interest through what’s called the Diels-Alder linkage. It’s a fancy term that essentially means—it’s a particular organic reaction—that is breakable when you have certain wavelengths of light and certain heats. If you have enough energy in this bond it will break. And so that’s why we were so interested in this particular form of therapy for these underrepresented communities; we have some nanoparticle technology that is really new and quite cheap. And we now have a potential therapy that is directly pertinent to this healthcare inequity that is of such great interest to me personally.
What do you want to do after you graduate?
I would like do pursue an M.D./M.P.H. because I’m most interested in infectious disease and public health.
Is there anything that surprised you when you entered the Ogden Honors College?
There were two really big things that surprised me. The first was the familial environment—every single Honors professor I’ve ever encountered, and every single person in the Honors College, I feel as though they are the perfect combination of a professor, mentor and friend. The second thing that surprised me was how much the Honors staff encouraged people to get involved in the community. For example, going to work at McKinley High School as an ESL teacher, or a Volunteers in Public Schools Reading Friend—there are loads of amazing opportunities to go work in the community and actually be a force for social justice.
How would you say that your experience in the Ogden Honors College has benefited you in your time at LSU?
The Ogden Honors College as a whole provides students with the tools they need to do well in everything. The Ogden Honors Leaders program is an example from my own experience. Providing research funding to undergraduate students is almost unheard of—it’s huge.
What advice do you have for students considering Ogden Honors, or students who will be entering the College this year?
To every incoming student, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it or that it doesn’t fit with your degree. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you want to go into—for example, studying abroad is going to help you no matter what. There’s a kind of worldliness and international perspective that I feel is a requirement for high-functioning individuals in the workplace. For those of you considering the Honors College, do it. There’s no way around it. The Honors College provides experiences, opportunities and an amazing community that you will be thankful for the remainder of your career.