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Under Pressure: Senior Takes Top Honors in Sports Medicine

By Jovie Baclayon

Dr. Jeff Jasperse and Kentaro Onishi

It was one of those typical award show moments: the host calls out the name of the winner, who just happened to choose that particular moment to go to the bathroom or have a huge mouthful of food. In Pepperdine senior Kentaro Onishi’s case, he had just taken a big bite into an apple when his name was called at the annual meeting of the Southwest Chapter of The American College of Sports Medicine (SWACSM) in November 2005.

“I was very intimidated by my competitors. I didn’t think I was going to win because all the other candidates were talking about things I didn’t even understand!” says Onishi with a laugh. “I was sitting way in the back and had to run to the podium!”

The fifth-year senior is an international student from Tokyo, Japan, which is perceptible in his lingering accent. Considering he did not speak a word of English when he enrolled at the University, Onishi has much to be proud of: he is the first Pepperdine student to receive the Norman James Student Research Award and, more importantly, the only undergraduate winner in the award’s history.

Onishi, 24, admits that most of the public would have difficulty understanding the subject matter. In short, his research titled “Potassium Channel Regulation of Vascular Tone,” seeks to understand the internal mechanisms that regulate blood pressure with hope that, one day, scientists will be able to use that information to help people control their blood pressure.

The term “vascular tone” refers to the diameter of arteries in the human body. The diameter of arteries is an important factor in controlling blood pressure and blood flow in the body. Arterial constriction reduces blood flow through arteries and leads to increased blood pressure. Constriction is caused by contraction of smooth muscle cells located in the arterial wall. A number of different types of potassium channels located in the cell membranes of smooth muscle cells help regulate the level of contraction (or tone) and thus the diameter of arteries. Onishi’s work examined four different specific potassium channels to determine the role of each in controlling the diameter of arteries. 

Previous research studies led by Onishi’s mentor, Dr. Jeffrey Jasperse, professor of sports medicine, showed the likelihood that the potassium channel played a role in constricting the vascular tone. Since starting on the actual project one year ago, Onishi spent at least 15 hours a week in the lab -- sometimes all in one day -- focusing on blocking each channel using drugs to locate which specific potassium channels were involved.

“Ken catches on fast to the intricacies of laboratory research, and it as been a pleasure to work with him on this project,” says Dr. Jasperse. “He has a keen interest in cardiovascular physiology and a real interest in uncovering new information, especially information that can be used to help treat patients. It is a real honor for Kentaro to win this award, but he has earned it with his hard work and his keen interest in the answers to the problems we are investigating.”

In turn, Onishi has nothing but praise for his mentor. “I wanted to work for him because I found him very fascinating. I’m not Christian, but Dr. Jasperse is, and to me, it was a contradiction to be a devoted Christian and a great scientist. Scientists try to explain everything logically whereas believers turn to God. I started talking to him, found out we have similar interests, and asked if I could work for him.”

He continues, “Dr. Jasperse is an interesting person and a great mentor. He makes me think and allows an undergraduate do everything Ph.D. or masters candidates do, which is very unique.”

Out of 25-30 studies submitted, six finalists were chosen to attend the conference in Las Vegas and present their research. Not only did Onishi’s competitors study at universities with considerably more funding for experiments and state-of-the-art equipment, such as USC and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, they were also either studying for their masters or Ph.D. “As a graduate or Ph.D. student, most of your time is spent in the lab conducting experiments,” he says. “I had to take different classes for my chemistry minor and finish my medical school applications, so it was hard to find balance.”

Up next for Onishi is a presentation at the annual Experimental Biology meeting, which will be held in San Francisco in 2006.  This presentation will be about the effects of exercise training on the control of vascular tone by potassium channels. He graduates in May 2006 with a degree in sports medicine and, tentatively, a minor in chemistry. He plans to attend medical school and is considering specializing in internal medicine.

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