BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. — Think earthworms aren’t important? Don’t tell that to Master Sgt. Michael Guderyon. The slimy, little earth-dwellers, along with some help from the Air Force Reserve, literally changed the trajectory of his life.
Growing up in the small town of Mamou, Louisiana, Guderyon lacked ambition, direction and drive. Uninterested in school, he seemed to be on a fast-track to nowhere.
Not many in Guderyon’s family had graduated high school and few people in his small town could see the potential that would one day allow Guderyon to become a doctoral student conducting stem cell research on incurable diseases, especially one serving as a senior non-commissioned officer in the Air Force Reserve.
“The importance of academics were never really stressed to me growing up,” Guderyon said, who now possesses a master’s degree in in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “My plan was to drop out of high school and just sort of see where life took me.”
Those plans changed suddenly one day when his high school Biology teacher showed Guderyon an article on how scientists actually extended the life span of earthworms from a couple of weeks to several months.
Guderyon asked the teacher why the same could not be done in humans. His teacher shocked the young student, first by admitting he didn’t know the answer, and then by challenging him to go to college and find out.
Suddenly excited about the prospect of going to college, he still struggled with two major obstacles, a lack of discipline and the necessary funds to further his education.
A visit to an Air Force Reserve recruiter solved both those issues by introducing Guderyon to whole new way of thinking.
“Growing up in a small town, I thought small,” he said. “Everything in the Air Force was just the opposite of that mindset and it gave me the discipline and the responsibility to overcome character flaws that held me back earlier in life.”
Armed with a new outlook on life, Guderyon entered a local community college, earning an Associate’s degree in Science before moving on to study mechanical engineering at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
In the Air Force Reserve, Guderyon had grown to love his work as a structural maintenance mechanic, but found himself bored with his mechanical engineering studies in college. He thought back to his conversation with his former high school teacher, and began pursuing a course of study on aging research, hoping that one day he could help people live longer, more productive lives.
“There weren’t many mentors in the area of aging research at Louisiana-Lafayette and I wasn’t sure if I should pursue a biology route or a chemistry route, so I did both,” he said.
Guderyon is now a doctoral student at University of Texas Health –San Antonio doing aging research on a new method of conducting bone marrow transplants with stem cells. The research is designed to make the procedure open to more patients and heal more diseases. In spite of the academic workload, Guderyon still managed to deploy twice with the 307th Bomb Wing while earning his degrees.
“The military comes first,” he said. “Even with the deployments, the Air Force Reserve still gives me the flexibility to contribute to my country and still pursue my education.”
Currently, bone-marrow transplants are only available for a few types of diseases due to the highly toxic nature of the procedure. It requires heavy doses of radiation and chemotherapy, which is very traumatic for the patient. So, the procedure is limited to patients whose condition is life-threatening.
Using stem cells, Guderyon and a team of researchers have discovered how to perform the same bone marrow transplant using a simple intravenous procedure using much safer reagents, all of which are FDA approved. By only using an IV, bone marrow transplant procedures can be open to patients with serious, but not necessarily life threatening diseases.
“In theory, we can potentially cure or treat over twenty-five different diseases including Parkinson’s, sickle-cell anemia and HIV,” he said.
Guderyon plans to get his doctorate and bring the new procedure out of the lab and into hospitals where it can begin helping patients. In the meantime, he plans to continue serving his country in the Air Force Reserve. He also hopes to combine his desire to serve with his passion for aging research.