Cory Henn was an Iraq war veteran with a career at the New Mexico Corrections Department when he decided to pursue a degree in computer programming. After about a year and a half there he took a biology elective and found his passion, switching to The University of New Mexico to study Biology full time.

The Pennsylvania native joined the United States Air Force under the delayed entry program at the age of 17 and after graduating in 2001, did his basic training. He chose a Security Forces career field, which gave him opportunities to work with weapons and gain law enforcement experience. He was stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, working in multiple roles ranging from nuclear and aircraft security to patrolman. In 2003, Henn deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom, then finished his time in the Air Force as a base patrolman and member of the Emergency Response Team. He left the Air Force in 2005 and quickly found a job with the New Mexico Corrections Department.

Henn spent two years as a Correctional Officer at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe. He joined the Corrections Emergency Response Team and gained training in high-risk situations. He was then selected to become a Security Threat Intelligence Unit officer, working with gang investigations both inside the prison and with the New Mexico Gang Task Force. After two years, he went back to the prisons as a sergeant, taking on an instructor role with the emergency response team. In 2014 Henn was recruited again, this time to an executive staff position with the New Mexico Corrections Department, working on recidivism reduction initiatives and helping to foster training opportunities for offenders.

Although well launched in his Corrections career, in 2017 Henn left to pursue an associate degree in Computer Programming at CNM and then switched to UNM after discovering his affinity for Biology. He started his Bachelor of Science degree program in Fall 2019 and worked as an undergraduate in the lab of Biology professor Irene Salinas. He graduated summa cum laude with departmental honors in 2022 and is now a Ph.D. student and immunologist in the Salinas lab.

“My areas of interest are mucosal and neuroimmunology. I am fascinated by immunological interactions between the gut and the brain,” Henn said. Research has shown that there are links between gut bacteria and changes in the brain and Henn hopes his work will help lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Displaying a minute section of a mouse colon on a microscope slide, he explained, “My current project looks at interactions between the gut and the brain in neurodegeneration. In our model, we are exploring the relationship between enterobacterial infections and neurodegeneration. We are also looking closely at the relationship between enterobacterial infections and the enteric nervous system, which is the nervous system of the gut.”

“This project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is the only mouse project that we currently have in the lab,” Salinas said. “[Research assistant professor] Elisa Casadei and Cory have led this project for several years now. The goal of the project is to understand the role of tau in the gastrointestinal tract and how it contributes to neurodegeneration in the brain.”

According to the NIH National Institute on Aging, tau normally binds to and stabilizes microtubules in the brain. In Alzheimer’s disease, however, abnormal chemical changes cause tau to detach from and stick to other tau molecules, causing the tangles in the brain characteristic of the devastating disease.

Henn plans to continue his focus on computational immunology as he pursues his Ph.D.

“I hope to learn how to use agent-based modeling to characterize the complex interactions of the immune system as they relate to mucosal and neuroimmunology. I am still unsure if I want to stay in academia or transition to industry after I finish my Ph.D. I just want to do good science and make a difference, but I’m not sure what that means yet for my career.”

“Cory’s past experiences make him a very different student. He is very passionate, very grateful for all the opportunities and to be in a positive learning environment. He also is very good at balancing many different tasks and he is a great communicator. We have a very open and healthy mentor-mentee relationship,” Salinas observed.

A single dad, Henn noted how important his son is to his journey as a student.

“My 12-year-old son Aiden is my absolute motivation and inspiration in life. It’s hard sometimes, but he always supports me and gives me the little words that I need to keep me going. I don’t know where I would be without him and he is a huge part of why I pushed so hard to finally get my education.”

UNM helped Henn reach his goals as an undergraduate through the departmental honors program. This program allows motivated undergraduates to pursue research and gain experience in the lab.

“Through the Biology honors program, I was given the opportunity to study under Dr. Salinas, a leading mucosal and evolutionary immunologist. She was an amazing undergraduate honors program advisor who challenged me every day to step out of my comfort zone and to do good science. My experience was so rewarding that I decided to stay with her to pursue my Ph.D. UNM is still helping me to reach my goals today through an assistantship that allows me the opportunity to continue my research as well as teach undergraduates.”