Student Spotlight May 2023

    Ernesto Pena Calderin is a PhD candidate from the Department of Physiology. Calderin earned his M.S. in Physiology in the Spring of 2022 and is anticipated to graduate with his PhD in the Spring of 2024. 


    Q: Describe your educational background.

    A: I fell in love with biological sciences from an early age and was primarily inspired by my father who was a physician back in my home country of Cuba. Thanks to his strong mentorship in all natural science subjects, I quickly excelled in this subject matter throughout grade school and always knew that a career either as a physician or biomedical scientist would be the perfect fit for me. When I began my undergraduate studies in Biology at the University of Louisville, I was very fortunate to have excellent science professors and especially two excellent academic mentors – Drs. Michael Perlin and Cynthia Corbitt – who gave me the opportunity to work as an undergraduate research assistant in their labs at the Biology Department for the last half of my undergraduate career. Distilling knowledge from the inert space between textbooks pages and classroom chalkboards and applying it to real-life scientific questions at the lab bench, whose answers led to scientific discoveries, was an unforgettable first glance into the world of scientific research. I was also very fortunate to have secured a summer research internship sponsored by the UofL School of Medicine, Department of Physiology – The Undergraduate Summer Program in Cardiovascular Research for those from Under-Represented or Under-Served Populations. Thanks to this research experience, I was able to enhance my technical and critical-thinking skills, and more importantly, work closely with investigators at the Diabetes and Obesity Center to learn more about potential research projects for my future graduate work. Inspired by these unique undergrad research opportunities, I decided to pursue a PhD in Physiology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine with the goal of pursuing a career in biomedical science research.

    Q: What brought you to the University of Louisville?

    A: Right before I turned 15, my mom and I emigrated from Cuba to the US in July 2008 as political refugees. We have made Louisville our home ever since, in no small part thanks to the work of Kentucky Refugee Ministries and the support of the large Cuban-American community in Louisville. Additionally, the exciting growing research environment and research opportunities available at the University of Louisville Biology Department were very appealing to me and thus I decided to pursue my undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Louisville.

    Q: What are the specific areas of your research?

    A: My specific area of research includes innate immune cell biology, macrophage immunometabolism and bioactive lipid mediators of inflammation resolution.

    Q: How would you describe your area of study/ specific research to your grandmother?

    A: I’m trying to understand, at a molecular level, how diet and physical activity affect the immune system’s ability to better resolve chronic inflammation, especially in folks already suffering from such chronic conditions such as obesity-induced type 2 diabetes.

    Q: What made you go into this field of study?

    A: Immunology and cell metabolism have always been my favorite subjects in Biology. The study of intermediary metabolism in innate immune cells, although a very complex area of intense research, is nevertheless very exciting and rewarding. Additionally, I personally think that bioactive lipid mediator biology is an area of immunology research that is not as well studied and well understood as others.

    Q: How do you think this advanced degree will change your role in society?

    A: I hope to transition my skills and knowledge gained throughout this PhD program to the biotechnology industry sector where I hope to work on helping develop novel therapeutics and diagnostic platforms to help patients suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and others.

    Q: What are your long term goals and aspirations?

    A: I hope to become a Sr. Research Scientist in the biotech/biopharmaceutical industry to help drive research and development of novel therapeutics that improve the lives of patients suffering from chronic illnesses.

    Q: What accomplishment, academic or otherwise, are you most proud of?

    A: When I came from Cuba at 15 years of age and immediately started high school, I had to quickly learn enough English, mostly on my own, to be able to pass my freshman year and keep my career goals alive. As a student that always excelled in school, it was difficult to struggle in classes just because of a language barrier. Ultimately, fighting through that struggle gave me the drive and courage to quickly learn the language and culture (Cuba is culturally very unique and different from the US) and advance my career goals.

    Q: What has been your favorite part of the graduate school experience at UofL?

    A: The amazingly supportive classmates and friends that I have made throughout these very stressful years of so much change and uncertainty.

    Q: What do you feel is the greatest challenge that graduate students face and how have you dealt with this challenge?

    A: With a growing number of PhD graduates in the biomedical sciences, a relatively unchanging number of faculty positions throughout the country and an inelastic NIH budget, a career in academia has never been more competitive. Fortunately, a PhD degree is highly versatile and offers many opportunities outside of academia. However, it requires students to carefully reassess their career plans and focus their training early on to achieve those goals more efficiently as they approach their graduation date and are getting ready to re-enter the job market. Highlighting marketable and transferable skills during the job-search process outside of the academic sector is not something that comes natural to us academic scientists, simply due to the nature of our training. So, in my opinion, it’s best to start honing those skills early on as you progress through your training rather than towards the end.

    Q: Tell us about your family life. 

    A: Trying to survive the hecticness of grad school life while raising my now 4 years old Cocker Spaniel, Sir Charles Darwin, has been indeed quite the challenge! 

    Awards, honors, publications:

    NRSA Ruth L. Kirschstein F31 Predoctoral Fellowship Award (DK131920)

    Professional member of the International Society for the Advancement of Cytometry (ISAC), The American Association of Immunologists, and the American Heart Association 


    • Calderin, E. P., Zheng, J.-J., Boyd, N. L., McNally, L., Lorkiewicz, P., Hill, B. G., & Hellmann, J. (2022). Exercise-induced specialized proresolving mediators stimulate AMPK phosphorylation to promote mitochondrial respiration in macrophages. Molecular Metabolism, 101637
    • Zheng, J. J., Calderin, E. P., Hill, B. G., Bhatnagar, A., & Hellmann, J. (2019). Exercise promotes resolution of acute inflammation by catecholamine-mediated stimulation of resolvin D1 biosynthesis. The Journal of Immunology203(11), 3013-3022. (PublishedManuscript)
    • Calderin, E. P., McNally, L., Hill, B. G., & Hellmann, J. (2021). Specialized pro-resolving lipid mediators stimulate mitochondrial metabolism in macrophages. The Journal of Immunology, 206(1 Supplement), 97.09-97.09

    Fun Facts:

    A talent you have always wanted: To be as great of an outdoorsman as John Muir.

    Favorite book: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

    Favorite quote: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” -George Elliot

    Role Model: Marcus Aurelius

    Favorite thing to do or place to go in Louisville: Bourbon and Beyond!

    If you weren’t in graduate school, what would you be doing now? Bike packing across North America through the TransAmerica Trail and the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route – the top items on my bucket list!