Amazing Students

Christian Cullen

For three years, Christian Cullen has conducted research surrounding immune response in cystic fibrosis lungs. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)
For three years, Christian Cullen has conducted research surrounding immune response in cystic fibrosis lungs. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

A tragic event in Christian Cullen’s life led him down a path at UGA to become a doctor who helps people of all backgrounds, and he wants to discover new, innovative approaches to patient care.


Newnan, GA

High school:

East Coweta High School

Expected graduation:

May 2018

Degree objective:

B.S. Microbiology; Certificate in African Studies; Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO) Graduation Distinction

Current employment:

UGA Athletics subject tutor

University highlights, achievements and awards:

My time at the University of Georgia has been a journey of academic and personal growth. At the start of my freshman year, my world was flipped upside down after answering a call from my mom telling me that my best friend, Cole, had passed away. After 17 years of fighting, Cole made his last visit to the hospital and his battle with cystic fibrosis drew to an end. Surrounded by my sister and several close friends in the back of Creswell 5A, a life was mourned, and a new passion was ignited within me to fight back.

For the past three years, UGA has given me the opportunity to honor Cole’s life by taking part in research surrounding immune response in cystic fibrosis lungs. Under the direction of Dr. Balazs Rada in the Department of Infectious Diseases, our research has focused on key bacterial components involved in CF lung inflammation. Using mutant strains of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common pathogen in CF airways, we were able to pinpoint key structures in bacteria that trigger immune response. Such structures may serve as targets for future therapies that seek to suppress the detrimental effects of inflammation in CF lungs.

After two years of research and many hours at the lab bench, I had the honor of publishing this research as a co-author in PLOS Pathogens, a clinical research journal, in the fall of my junior year. Later the following semester, I received the UGA Libraries Undergraduate Research Award for my research and use of the school’s 3-D printing technology.

Without UGA’s strong foothold in research, experiences such as these would not have been possible. It has broadened my view of health care and has shown me the unique synergy that exists between medicine and research. Most recently, this experience has taken me to Bethesda, Maryland, where I spent last summer as an intern in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases studying the effects of anti-inflammatory medication within the human body.

In addition to research, I have spent the past three years volunteering at the Athens Nurses Clinic, a clinic that serves uninsured citizens who fall below the poverty line. This clinic has shown me the effects poverty and low socioeconomic status can have on an individual’s health. Since the spring of my freshman year, I have served as an intake staff recording patient vitals. Additionally, I have taught multiple classes ranging from nutrition and exercise to smoking cessation. This experience has shown me that being a doctor means caring not only about the illness, but also the patient.

In regards to philanthropy, I have been involved in UGA Miracle since the start of my freshman year, and I currently serve on the Executive Board. UGA Miracle is the largest student-run philanthropy at UGA and seeks to support Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. As a co-chair of the Hospital Relations Committee, I join fellow members in maintaining a firm relationship with our hospital as we visit the kids in the hospital every Sunday. Whether it is assisting in an exercise or shooting hoops, we offer the kids a break from their usual hospital routine. As I witness kids take their first steps, breathe on their own, or leave the hospital cancer-free, UGA Miracle is a reminder of why I am pursuing a life in medicine. It also allows me to revisit the halls I once walked down with Cole during his many stays.

In addition to those listed above, I have the privilege of being involved in other organizations that have also shaped me into the student I am today. These include AED Pre-Med Honor Society, UGA Libraries Student Advisory Committee and UGA MEDLIFE. I also had the honor of serving the student body in UGA Student Government as a senator for Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and as a student representative on University Council.

Family ties:

I come from a Gator dynasty that goes back as far as my great-grandfather. It was UF or nothing. However, when I was in high school, my mom began to entertain the idea of us going to a school closer to home, so she asked me to give Athens a visit. After touring the campus, I instantly fell in love with the beautiful city and the familiar Southern hospitality. I knew I had to be here. As of now, my sister, Carly, and younger brother, Larry, also attend UGA.

I chose to attend UGA because…

After graduating high school, I wanted to go to a university that not only served my educational pursuits, but also offered the chance to experience life in a new surrounding with abundant opportunities. I naturally gravitate toward connecting with people, and I knew that UGA would not disappoint.

With hundreds of organizations and a diverse student body, I was eager to dive in and experience all that UGA had to offer. I quickly sensed a familial bond between the students, faculty and staff throughout campus, and I was encouraged to foster similar relationships as an incoming freshman. From Mrs. Sandra’s hugs at Snelling to high fives with Anthony, the janitor at Creswell, the UGA culture is one where everyone is family, and no one is a stranger.

My favorite things to do on campus are …

Aside from cheering on the Dawgs, I like to spend my time meeting new people and running into familiar faces. Whether it’s at the Bolton long tables or pretending to be athletic at Ramsey, there is always a place to meet new Bulldogs. I also love spending time outside on our beautiful campus in places such as the Founders Garden or Herty Field.

When I have free time, I like …

… to hang out with my triplet sister, Carly. We have done everything together and look out for each other. Together we joined the Bulldog family and called Creswell home our freshman year. Her place on the fifth floor was a second home from my room on the sixth. She is my best friend, and my Athens experience would not be the same without her.

I also love discovering new music to listen to. If you have any favorites, send them my way! My current fix is a band called Valley — check them out!

The craziest thing I’ve ever done is …

… star in a show on Nickelodeon. When I was a kid, my hobbies mainly consisted of riding bikes with my friends and annoying the neighbors with my siblings. When I had free time between the bike rides and my role as the neighborhood menace, I would often spend it watching Nickelodeon. As I entered fifth grade, I was determined to be on the screen.

Using her past role as a casting director in Los Angeles, my mom reached out to her college roommate, Alison, who was the senior vice president of production at Nickelodeon at the time. After mentioning my love for Nickelodeon, Alison told me she would see what she could do. Next thing I knew, I had a spot on the show “Unfabulous” with a dressing room next to Emma Roberts. I was a star for a day, and my childhood dream came to life. Season 3 Episode 10 if you are curious.

My favorite place to study is …

… always changing. Every semester, I like to mix up the study spots whether it is Tate Starbucks or Walker’s coffee shop. There always seems to be an underlying theme of caffeine involved. Currently, my go-to spot is the Five Points Jittery Joes.

My favorite professor is …

Now that’s a tough one.

Dr. Karl Espelie has been my go-to person when it comes to achieving the dream of becoming a physician. After being introduced to him at the start of my sophomore year, I was honored to meet the person I now revere as the “Mr. Miyagi of Pre-Med Students.” Whether it was putting me in contact with influential people of various health fields or inviting fellow advisees for dinner over the holidays, Dr. Espelie has not only been a valued asset academically, but has shown investment to his students beyond the classroom. Words cannot express how thankful I am for his guidance and support.

In addition, I have great respect and appreciation for Dr. Balazs Rada, the principal investigator of the lab I have been a part of for almost three years. After reaching out to him at the end of my freshman year, Dr. Rada saw potential in me and decided to give me a spot in his lab. In a matter of weeks, I was doing experiments with Dr. Rada as he patiently taught me the basics of scientific research. Over the years, he has not only served as a valuable mentor, but he has become an incredible friend. Whether it is providing expert advice on an experiment or delivering another cheesy science joke, you can always count on Dr. Rada to lighten up a room with sage wisdom and endless laughter. Without him, I would not have taken part in cystic fibrosis research, become a published co-author, or secured an internship at the National Institutes of Health.

Lastly, Dr. Vincent Starai has become a recent addition to my list of favorites. Last fall, I was enrolled in his Prokaryotic Biology class, and it was honestly one of the most enjoyable classes I have taken in college. Using his boundless energy and sharp wit, Dr. Starai was able to keep the entire class captivated in what would otherwise be dense, complicated subject matter. His passion for microbiology is encouraging, and he makes me proud to be a microbiology major.

If I could share an afternoon with anyone, I would love to share it with …

… Robin Williams. He was a deep actor who encompassed so much talent allowing him to express his art in a variety of roles. Whether it was his stand-up comedian persona in “Mrs. Doubtfire” or his emotional delivery as a teacher in “Dead Poets Society,” his performances resonated with audiences of all kinds. I think an afternoon with him would be full of great conversation and endless laughter.

If I knew I could not fail, I would …

… find a cure for cystic fibrosis and cancer — two diseases that have deeply impacted me and my family personally. In high school, Cole and I started a 5K run called the Soles for Cole that seeks to raise money toward a cure for cystic fibrosis. Since Cole’s passing my freshman year, we have continued his mission for a cure and have established memorial scholarships in his name for two individuals at each school in our county. After five years of races, the Soles for Cole has raised over $65,000 toward the CF Foundation and college scholarships.

If money was not a consideration, I would love to …

… travel to every country in the world. I realized this love for traveling after venturing to Tanzania with UGA MEDLIFE my junior year.

This experience allowed me to connect with people of another culture through medicine and sparked a new love for East Africa. In addition, I made lasting bonds with various communities using my recent language requirement in Swahili.

How are you committed to pursuing your passion?

My passion is to become a doctor who helps people of all backgrounds and discovers new, innovative approaches to patient care.

During my internship this summer, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH and former head of the Human Genome Project. During our conversation, Dr. Collins stressed the importance of being a doctor that strives to improve the quality and accessibility of health care. This is what I aspire to do. Whether it is collaborating in clinical research or serving at local homeless clinics, I want to be a physician who makes advances in medicine and serves all people regardless of their situation.

After graduation, I plan to …

… go to medical school! While a specific specialty remains to be seen, I have a passion of serving kids in pediatrics. I also plan to serve overseas by making yearly trips to East Africa.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be …

… a hospital visit I went on with UGA Miracle.

During one memorable Sunday at CHOA, I met a kid named Jacob — a small, timid, 3-year-old with leukemia. As he walked into the playroom, it was clear that he was tired and reluctant to participate. I decided to invite him to play air hockey, and I grabbed a stool for him to stand on. Almost instantly, a smile lit up the room. I spent the rest of the afternoon with Jacob as I held his tiny hand in mine and his IV pole in the other.

These visits have taught me things I can never learn in a classroom. I have seen that one footstep means the world to a family in rehab, that an hour of crafts can make a child with cancer fill a room with laughter, and that doctors not only care about the illness, but the child.