I’ve basically been a scientist since I was a kid, it wasn’t until college that I began to consider science as a career path. I’ve always been curious about the world, and even today my favorite part about being a neuroscientist is knowing that I’m at the forefront of human knowledge, it’s a powerful thought that has always attracted me to the field. Neuroscience is essentially one of the only fields of science that lacks a foundational principle. In other words, we know so little about the brain. We know far more about galaxies light years away!
What do you do?
My research focuses on DNA damage and repair in adult neurons. Every cell of your body, except neurons, can copy its genome in case the original suffers damage. Because neurons don’t divide, your neurons are stuck with the same copy of DNA your entire life! My work aims to better understand how neurons handle DNA damage, and how a lifetime of this damage can accumulate and manifest as a disease like depression, schizophrenia, and especially age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
To test DNA-instability in neurons, we use genetic engineering tools like CRISPR/Cas9 to modify genes involved in DNA damage repair. I then measure structural changes in individual neurons. Working with brain tissue, I can label proteins of interest using fluorescent dyes, and visualize them in 3D space using a confocal microscope, followed by 3D reconstruction of individual neurons. Confocal microscopes emit a high-powered laser that shows nanometer structures…it’s like peeking inside a single neuron!
How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?
The world is rapidly aging, and as of date no disease modifying therapeutics exist to combat neurodegenerative diseases. Unlike other diseases, patients with neurodegeneration never recover and family members are exhausted from caring for them. This means no one advocates for these patients or these diseases and often funding lags behind other fields like cancer research. This has led many experts to sound the alarm and warn of a coming neurodegenerative epidemic . My research suggests DNA-instability underlies neurodegeneration, and I hope the technology we’re developing can expedite drug discovery for these diseases and thereby lessen the burden families and society will face.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
For anyone considering a career in science, particularly entering into a life science PhD program, you should know it will be the most exciting, rewarding, stressful and frightful time of your life, so you should be ok with all those emotions! I recommend thinking about potential career paths after graduate school – go perform the self-assessment  at the link below (it’s designed specifically for life science graduate students). Secondly, I would join a research lab ASAP. Cold call professors at local institutions and tell them your plans. Many undergraduate professors will be eager to take you in.
1) Petsko, Gregory A. “The next epidemic.” Genome biology vol. 7,5 (2006): 108. doi:10.1186/gb- 2006-7-5-108