Maya Gosztyla is the creator of AlzScience. Her passion for Alzheimer’s disease began at a young age when her grandmother was diagnosed with vascular dementia following a stroke. She currently works in a lab at the National Institutes of Health, where she’s researching a rare neurodegenerative disorder called Niemann-Pick Disease. In addition to her love of research, Maya has a passion for science writing and hopes to continue educating the public about the ways we can keep our brains healthy as we age. We are excited to interview Maya about her research, fighting Alzheimer’s and the role of diet in brain health. Follow her on Twitter @AlzScience
Can you tell us about your journey in science?
I’ve pretty much always known that I wanted to be a scientist, but the exact field of science has varied quite a bit. For most of my high school, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. But then I took an advanced biology course in my senior year, and I was hooked! I ended up going to college at the Ohio State University and double-majoring in Neuroscience and Molecular Genetics. I knew I wanted to get involved with research, so I joined a lab that was studying how axons (the long projections that neurons use to send electrochemical signals) are guided to their proper destinations during the development of the nervous system. This research was fascinating work, but over time, my interests began to drift more toward studying human diseases. I spent some time in Switzerland doing a research project on Alzheimer’s disease, which convinced me that this was the area of research that I wanted to focus on. After I graduated, I secured a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where my research has a biomedical focus. I’m now applying to Ph.D. programs in Neuroscience, and I hope to begin my enrollment this fall. I plan to research the underlying mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases (including Alzheimer’s) and develop new strategies for treatment.
What areas of research are you currently pursuing?
My section of the NIH is called the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. We are interested in the “bench to bedside” research, which involves taking scientific discoveries and trying to apply them to treating diseases. One of my projects is to develop a method to quantify how much cholesterol is inside of neurons that are growing in a dish. There are several diseases caused by the accumulation of too much cholesterol, including Niemann Pick Disease (also known as “childhood Alzheimer’s disease”). We are hoping that this new method will allow us to quickly screen thousands of different chemicals to see if any of them can reduce how much cholesterol is inside these cells. After that, we can investigate those chemicals further and try to develop them into a new treatment.
What’s one fact that you’ve learned about the brain?
During the day, your neurons are working hard sending lots of signals, and in the process, they release a lot of waste products into your brain. One of these waste products is amyloid-beta, a toxic protein that’s believed to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. Luckily, when we sleep, all the gunk inside your brain gets cleared away. That’s why getting enough sleep is so important!
What’s one piece of advice you would give to early career researchers?
One of the best things I ever did was start a science blog. It’s a great way to get more familiar with your field of research while helping other people to understand. It’s also great for networking; so far two people at my Ph.D. interviews have told me that they are regular readers of my blog!
How can science communication contribute to fighting against Alzheimer’s disease (AD)?
There’s a lot of misinformation surrounding Alzheimer’s disease. A lot of people don’t realize that only one-third of your overall risk is due to genetics—the rest is all determined by your lifestyle choices! A balanced diet, regular exercise, and lifelong learning can dramatically reduce your risk of getting this disease. I’m hoping that my efforts in science communication can help more people learn how to start taking better care of their brains.
What’s one recommendation you’d give people wanting to reduce their AD risk?
Probably the number one best thing you can do for your brain is to improve your diet. A lot of research has shown that the Mediterranean diet, which is also great for heart health, dramatically reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This diet minimizes saturated fat and red meats while consuming lots of vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Even if you take a small step toward improving your diet, like cutting out all sugary beverages, it can make a big difference in your brain health, not to mention your body!
What are you most proud of in your life?
I started my blog AlzScience about three years ago, and I’m so proud of how far it’s come. Last year the site had nearly 15,000 readers and also won a Science Seeker Award. It’s fantastic when people comment that they are grateful to learn the information.
What are your future career goals?
This fall, I’m planning to start a Ph.D. program in Neuroscience. My goal is to pursue a career in research either as a professor or in the pharmaceutical industry. I hope I can play a key part in bringing Alzheimer’s cure research to fruition.
What do you like to do for fun?
I love jogging; it’s my favorite way to clear my head. I also read a lot, and occasionally play around on my violin.