Sophomores Become First JSU Students to Conduct Cancer Research


It seems fated. Caitlyn Yongue and Kaylee Rawlins were 9th grade lab partners back at Alexandria High School. They are working together again, only this time the potential rewards are infinitely higher and, for Yongue, more personal.  

The 19-year-old sophomores are the first JSU students to perform grant-funded cancer research on campus. 

“It’s been amazing,” Rawlins said. “In our high school, we didn’t have much opportunity for labs. Now that I’m actually in the lab, I already love it more than even I expected.”

Over the summer, Yongue and Rawlins studied how human cancer cells grow and behave in preparation to test the effects cannabinoids – naturally occurring compounds found in the Cannabis sativa plant – have on those hallmark characteristics. 

“Does it change the shape or rate of growth? Does it kill them outright? These are some of the questions we’re trying to answer,” said Dr. Lori Hensley, head of JSU’s Department of Biology and lead researcher. “They will also be looking at the way the drugs affect the cells’ ability to migrate because most patients don’t die from the initial tumor but from the metastasis. If you can limit its ability to move you can lead to a new prognosis for the patient.”

Cannabinoids are “structurally similar to THC,” the active compound in the marijuana plant, Dr. Hensley explained. However, the cannabinoids the students are investigating are not psychoactive, meaning there’s no high. Research has shown these compounds to have medicinal benefits that may make them a useful treatment option, especially for pediatric cancers. 

In the cell biology labs, Dr. Hensley is the lead instructor with Yongue and Rawlins assisting as peer instructors while receiving course credit. 

“They are going to be instrumental in the success of the lab,” Dr. Hensley said.

The cancer research is part of a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that Dr. Hensley and Dr. Nathan Reyna, associate professor of biology at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas, were awarded to create the Cell Biology Education Consortium (CBEC). 

The CBEC will build and support a network of faculty and students to provide resources and training that will make it possible for smaller, primarily undergraduate institutions and community colleges to create customized, cell culture research projects. As part of this grant, JSU now has its own cell culture lab that allows for, among other things, cancer research.

“JSU has never had a research facility or research opportunity like this before,” Dr. Hensley said. “It brings a lot to our students, to the ability to recruit new faculty and to train our existing faculty in a lot of ways.” 

Dr. Hensley’s vision is to replace “cookbook labs” – with manuals that give step-by-step instructions and expected results – for authentic research experiences. 

“Instead, they’ll be able to design their own experiments,” she said. “They’ll be working at their own pace. It’s an entirely different way to teach labs. In the end, we will be creating students who have learned to think like scientists instead of as pretty good chefs.” 

Over time, Dr. Hensley believes this approach will change the culture of science on campus because it is better suited to the way students learn. Traditional science classes can be overwhelming simply because of the amount of information students are expected to learn simply from textbooks

“But when you move them to the lab where it’s very hands-on,” Hensley said, “they can actually see what they were only reading about before. It makes a huge difference in how they learn when they can see something’s direct relevance to their lives. This gives them the chance to live out the learning they see in their textbooks.” 

When choosing their potential career paths, both students found inspiration close to home. Since she was 13 years old, Yongue watched as her mother battled a rare form of skin cancer called Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP).  

“I started taking a role in the house that I’d never really had before, taking care of my brothers and my mom after all her surgeries,” said Yongue. “Seeing the effect that it had on our family made me want to pursue a career in oncology.”

Yongue is majoring in pre-health professional biology and plans to attend medical school to become a surgical oncologist. She admits to being initially nervous, having personally witnessed the devastation cancer can wreak on families but having little experience with researching the disease. But once she started with the project, she knew she’d found her calling. 

“I tell my mom everything about what I’ve done and what I’ve learned,” she said. “I have a long line of cancer in my family, so we all hold it close to our hearts. To be able to learn and study about it makes the work that much more important to me.”

Yongue added that her mom is doing better: “She has good days and bad days, but she’s doing pretty well.”

Rawlins’ mother has worked in hospitals since she was a kid, which led to her own interest in health care. She is majoring in pre-health biology with a minor in chemistry. She plans to attend medical school to become a neurosurgeon. 

While exploring her options at JSU, Rawlins was drawn to research, but didn’t know where to start – until she happened to be walking down the halls of the biology department and passed Dr. Hensley.

“She said, ‘Hi’ to me in the hall and she just seemed so nice,” Rawlins said, “so I decided to go straight to the source and ask her what type of research opportunities were available.”

Rawlins eventually sent Dr. Hensley an email and found out about the cancer research. “It went from there,” Rawlins said. It’s as if it were simply meant to be.

“They both chose me,” Hensley said of her proteges. “And for that I’m extremely grateful.”