Rachel Cliburn and Carlie Hoffman are Neuroscience PhD students at Emory University. Rachel and Carlie study Parkinson’s disease, specifically focusing on the role of vesicular proteins. I interviewed Rachel and Carlie, asking about their research, the life of a PhD student, and Parkinson’s Disease.
William: What aspect of Parkinson’s are you studying?
Rachel: I study vesicle dynamics...how dopamine and other similar neurotransmitters are packaged into packets so that they're ready for release.
Carlie: My research focuses on some of the molecular underpinnings of Parkinson’s disease, specifically the role of vesicle loading and release on the risk of getting Parkinson’s disease.
William: Describe a typical day of your research.
Rachel: Ha! My days vary widely based on what project I'm working on. For a while, I would go and do behavioral experiments alone in the mouse facility all day, every day. I went through a lot of books on tape during those months! During a time when I was trying to collect more neurochemical data, I spent every day using a specially made recording device to measure dopamine release from brain slices. That was a lot more fun, but I spent half the time troubleshooting the equipment! Lately I've been getting writing done while also doing more basic immunochemical methods. Writing is mentally exhausting (for me), so it pairs perfectly with the banal, repetitive work of immunochemistry.
Carlie: A lot of my work is in cells, so a typical day involves a lot of time in the cell culture hood. I perform experiments in the hood (usually treating cells with chemicals and seeing how they affect vesicle loading or altering protein expression in the cells and seeing how that affects vesicle loading) and working on cell maintenance (splitting cells- moving them from one plate to another, and feeding the cells with fresh media).
W: What aspects of Parkinson’s research show the most promise for future developments?
R: I may be biased towards our lab's area of research, but I truly think the most promising future of health, including Parkinson's, is in prevention. Understanding how and why people develop disease is a powerful tool for preventing it from ever happening. Early biomarkers of Parkinson's are an interesting avenue for being able to stave off the progress of the disease before it becomes a major burden.
C: I am not familiar with the entire scope of Parkinson’s research, but I think trying to determine the causes of Parkinson’s has the most promise for future developments. If we can figure out what is going wrong, then that will give us new targets for treatment.
W: How do you think that your work can translate into tangible gains for human Parkinson’s patients?
R: Working with model systems, such as mice, allow us as researchers to gain incomparably more understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying human disease. We owe a huge amount of our current medical knowledge to lab animals. In mice, we can directly test hypothesis...impossible to achieve in humans.
C: I do not work too much with mouse models, but a lot of my cell work is with human cell lines, which translates directly into human Parkinson’s patients. The proteins that I am studying are in people and mice alike, so figuring out how these proteins work (using both mice and cell lines) will also help us figure out how the proteins work in humans.
W: What are some common misconceptions about Parkinson’s?
R: That it's a purely motor disease. Parkinson's disease also affects sleep, digestion, mood, and, eventually, cognition.
C: I think a common misconception about Parkinson’s is that by the time a patient shows symptoms, the person has already had extensive and irreversible brain damage. So our treatments will not be able to cure Parkinson’s, just help make the symptoms more manageable.
W: What is an interesting fact about Parkinson’s that few people know?
R: Most people develop Parkinson's from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. However, it is possible to develop full-blown Parkinson's disease following an injection of a particular neurotoxin, MPTP. This was discovered in the 80's after a group of young opioid addicts in southern California injected themselves with a batch of drug contaminated with MPTP. They were soon hospitalized with severe symptoms of advanced Parkinson's disease. What has been a sad story for these “frozen addicts", as they came to be called, was a boon for research: MPTP is now used to model Parkinson's disease and has pushed forward the field of PD research by leaps and bounds.
C: There are a lot of side effects other than tremors and difficulty walking, such as sleep problems and gastrointestinal problems.
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