North America is bounded to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west, and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea. It is the third largest continent by area and the fourth by population.
Name: Dr. Monica Javidnia Job: Experimental Therapeutics Fellow Country: United States and Iran Age: 31
Dr. Monica Javidnia is a neuropharmacologist and Experimental Therapeutics in Neurological Disease Fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She earned both her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Neuroscience at the University of Texas at Dallas and her Ph.D. in Pharmacology from Georgetown University. Her work focuses on pharmacological and non-pharmacological management of motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, disease progression modeling, and patient outcomes. Find Dr. Javidnia on Twitter and LinkedIn.
On her neurodegenerative and aging research:
“My work largely focuses on Parkinson’s disease, treatment and progression, and I’m interested in how we can use digital tools to monitor response to treatment. I’m fortunate to be working in the Center for Health + Technology and Department of Neurology with many innovative researchers and collaborators. With the addition of virtual study visits, telemedicine, and remote assessments, the team is bringing research opportunities and clinical care to people who may not have previously had access. One such program is Parkinson Disease Care New York, a state-wide telemedicine initiative that provides specialist care to people with Parkinson’s. Sometimes, the closest specialist is hours away, and driving or getting a ride can be a huge burden. With telemedicine, people can see a neurologist from the comfort of their own home.”
On a surprising fact about Parkinson’s disease progression:
“When I learned about Parkinson’s disease through descriptions in a textbook (for example, average age 65, predominantly male, primary drug levodopa), I didn’t understand just how different things can be in real life. For about six months, I shadowed a movement disorders clinician once a week to learn more about Parkinson’s. It was eye-opening to see the range in ages, symptoms, other conditions they have, response to treatment, and more.”
On her work with 1000 girls, 1000futures:
“The New York Academy of Sciences 1000girls, 1000futures program pairs women in STEM with girls interested in pursuing STEM careers. In addition to the one-on-one mentorship, the program has message boards which are a great way to engage with people around the world, ask and answer questions, share articles, and participate in “Ask Me Anything” sessions. I have participated for two years now, and it has been wonderful getting to know the girls and other mentors.”
On her outreach and science-communication (SciComm) efforts:
“I try several methods to get my message out to the masses: Letters to a Pre-Scientist, Twitter, 1000girls, 1000futures program, Skype a Scientist, seminars, talking to people with Parkinson’s and their care partners, slipping some science in to my yoga classes, directing a science communication course at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and answering as many questions as I can. I started working with Ellen Wagner, a user-experience (UX) specialist, and it has definitely changed how I get my message across. Given my fields, I get a lot of questions from friends, family, and people I just met on all types of topics. I try to create a space in which they feel comfortable asking questions, gauge their background knowledge, respond clearly without excessive jargon, and hopefully leave the door open for a follow-up question or discussion. I don’t think I am perfect at SciComm, but I am definitely a better communicator than I used to be, and it just takes practice. As a side note, I applaud SciComm folks like Dr. Efra Rivera-Serrano, who have active social media accounts, post regularly, and maintain a large reach. I wish I had their skill and energy!”
On her future goals:
“Too many to count! Aside from my research goals, I want to provide personalized yoga practices for people with Parkinson’s. I believe yoga has the potential to improve symptoms, help prevent falls, and may also be beneficial for their care partner.”
I believe yoga has the potential to improve symptoms, help prevent falls, and may also be beneficial for their care partner.
Name: Beth Prusaczyk Job: Instructor of Medicine and Health Informatics Country: United States Age: 34
Beth Prusaczyk is an Instructor at the Institute for Informatics and in General Medical Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She is an implementation scientist who specializes in improving healthcare for older adults and other vulnerable populations by understanding how to better implement existing research findings into real-world practice and policy through the use of healthcare data and systems and team science. Dr. Prusaczyk completed her postdoctoral training at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She received her PhD and MSW from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. She also received her undergraduate degree in journalism from Webster University. As a 2018-2019 Health and Aging Policy Fellow and American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow, Dr. Prusaczyk worked with Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and her website.
On bridging policy, research, and practice:
“My work is focused on taking research findings and getting them used by practitioners and policymakers. I study that process and find ways to make it happen faster and better, and with better success. It’s the science of dissemination and implementation. And I do this all with a focus on older adults’ healthcare! I’m absolutely thrilled because my research interests include broadly what are the strategies to improve the implementation of evidence-based practices for older adults in the healthcare system, including the effect of interpersonal team dynamics on the implementation process and the use of existing healthcare data and system science methods such as social network analysis to inform and speed the implementation process. I currently serve as Secretary of the Society for Implementation Research Collaboration (SIRC). ”
On how health systems can support patients with dementia and their caregivers:
“One thing we found in our work is that hospital providers weren’t prioritizing education to patients with dementia or their caregivers. And this wasn’t exactly because the patients had dementia but more because patients with dementia were more often discharging to a skilled nursing facility, rehabilitation hospital, nursing home, etc. They weren’t as likely to go back home by themselves or with their caregiver. So the hospital providers felt like because the patient was going straight into the care of another healthcare professional, educating the patient or their caregiver about their diagnoses, symptoms to watch out for, medication side effects, etc. were not a priority. But, because we know older adults with dementia are at a higher risk for readmission and adverse events after hospital discharge, our research suggests that maybe hospital providers should consider prioritizing education for these patients and their caregivers so that they can advocate for themselves when they are at the nursing home, rehab hospital, etc.”
On her experience as a fellow in the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging:
“I was extremely lucky to be chosen as a 2018-2019 Health and Aging Policy Fellow, where I worked with the Senate Special Committee on Aging with Ranking Member Senator Bob Casey. This was an incredible experience to learn how policymakers use research findings when creating and negotiating policies for older adults. The training we receive as fellows and the network we become a part of are – as they tell you when you begin and it’s true – life-changing!”
On how her journalism experience informs her research:
“I think one thing that helps me be that bridge is my former career as a journalist. I loved being a journalist but newspapers (outside of the few major ones in the US) aren’t read as much today as they were 50 years ago, which means there aren’t many journalism jobs out there. While I wouldn’t trade my journalism experience for anything (it has been immensely helpful in my research career), when I decided to leave the field because of the poor job opportunities, it really was a pivotal moment because that’s when I found research and started on the path that has led me to where I am today. I didn’t take the traditional path to academia but as I get older and further along in my career I realize how much this unique path actually helps me!”
On her future goals:
“My goals are to become a successful researcher but also to become a bridge between researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. I think each has their own perspectives and expertise but we still operate in silos when, in fact, we need to all work together if we are going to improve healthcare. I think because I have seen all three positions I can help bridge those silos.”
I didn’t take the traditional path to academia but as I get older and further along in my career I realize how much this unique path actually helps me!
Name: Crystal Grant Job: Genetics Researcher and Science Advocate Country: United States and the Netherlands Age: 27
Crystal Grant was recently awarded a PhD in Genetics at Emory University. As an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, she used bioinformatics tools to characterize the molecular changes in humans with age. Originally from New York City, Dr. Grant completed her undergraduate studies at Cornell University, where she earned a BA in Biological Sciences with a minor in Anthropology. Throughout her graduate studies, she advocated for graduate students as President of Emory’s Graduate Student Council, volunteered with K-12 science outreach and education initiatives around Atlanta, and mentored underrepresented students. Dr. Grant enjoys practicing yoga, exploring museums, and traveling. In her future career, Dr. Grant she aims to combine her interest in crafting evidence-based science and technology policies with her doctoral experience working with big data. Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and her website.
On why she chose to the biology of aging:
“My decision to study aging was a result of the lab I chose at Emory University. PhD students enter the university before choosing a lab and then do three 3-month rotations through different labs before choosing one. I had just come from working in a mouse lab on a leukemia-like disease as part of my gap year. While I liked getting to work on a human disease, I disliked having to sacrifice mice, so I went into graduate school hoping to find a lab that studied a human condition using bioinformatics tools–meaning I’d just be working on the computer, not with any animal models. And I found just that in the Conneely Lab!
I spoke early in my first year to Dr. Karen Conneely (my now advisor) so she could tell me more about her lab. She studied epigenetics (which is the field that looks at how the environment interacts with our genetics) and had a student in her lab who was using this approach to study evolutionary theories of aging. It was a fascinating conversation that got me excited about her research and the prospect of joining her lab. She then told me more about what would become my first paper—that the environment around our DNA changes in a way that is so predictable and linear that these changes can be used to predict the age of the person with very high accuracy across several different tissues! Because of this accuracy and the correlation of someone’s predicted age based on their DNA marks with their actual time to mortality, it was suggested that looking at this mark on DNA (called DNA methylation) could be a biomarker of aging–essentially meaning that it was a better predictor of someone’s health than their actual chronological age. I was sold and luckily, she let me join her lab.
Since joining Karen’s lab, I’ve learned a lot more about this field and I’m always excited to see the new things we’re able to learn about the process of aging. Before I began studying aging, I thought, like many people, that we understood it well–but the more I learn about it, the more I realize how little we understand this process that we are all going through! But I think the promise of biomarkers of aging could help revolutionize medical treatment. It has the potential to allow us to know exactly what environmental factors and behaviors age us faster in addition to who is more at risk of disease development and early mortality.
On her yearlong research fellowship in the Netherlands:
“It was a cool experience. I was able to go because I am an NSF Graduate Research Fellow; fellows can apply for this additional program, Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW). The goal of GROW is to get more American scientists collaborating internationally. I’m super grateful to have been given that opportunity by the NSF. And finding my lab in the Netherlands resulted from me attending an international conference and having dinner with Dr. Eline Slagboom who put me in touch with Dr. Bas Heijmans. Through GROW, I worked in the Heijmans Lab in Leiden for a year on an interesting aging project. Others in the field seemed to agree, I attended an aging conference and many people at my poster were excited about our approach to developing a new biomarker of aging. However, the marker I developed in my 12 months of work did not appear an improvement over existing ones, but I’m hopeful that, once another graduate student picks up the project, they may make more headway on this project given more time.
Something else I learned was just how similar the process of doing science is in Europe compared to the US–the main differences were work life balance (which I think they are much better at there) and that graduate students are recognized and employees and treated as such. I thought it was amazing that everyone was entitled to 5 weeks of vacation each year and that grads were given a raise every few years to acknowledge how much more proficient they had gotten at their craft. However, I was surprised to learn that many of their contracts run out before they are finished writing their thesis, so they end up having to write it while at their new job–something that seemed very stressful to me. Another difference seemed to be the scale of biobanks (these are tissue samples from people volunteering to be part of research projects) in Europe compared to the US. Because of historical factors and mistreatment by US scientists of minorities in research studies of the past, it’s much harder to get Americans to participate in research in the US compared to Europeans, which is unfortunate and something scientists and policy makers in the US need to address.”
On becoming a science activist in graduate school:
“In graduate school, I’ve been very active both at Emory and on a larger scale at Capitol Hill in DC. More locally, I’ve been passionate about empowering graduate students at Emory. Especially now that I’ve seen how the PhD is so different in other parts of the world, I’m more well versed in ways American universities could improve the graduate experience. At Emory, I’m on a task force with the goal of improving the graduate experience for biology PhD students. Additionally, I’ve been part of a graduate organization that works to educate students on how they can have an impact on policy-makers, specifically in communicating the importance of the federal government funding for science research. This organization, the Emory Science Advocacy Network (EScAN), has given me experience in science policy and knowledge of careers that marry my interests in science research with my desire to maintain my civic engagement.
Through the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other professional societies, I’ve gotten to travel to DC to talk to Georgia legislators about the importance of funding science research at the federal level—which was a great experience. I think more scientists need to work on being advocates for what we do and practice talking about it with non-scientists. If the public and law-makers can better understand why what we do is so important, they’ll feel more comfortable trusting both us as researchers and the scientific findings that we publish.”
On her future goals:
“This January, I’ll be starting a 3-month science policy fellowship at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine through the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. I’m SUPER excited about this opportunity since working in policy has been a goal of mine since starting my PhD. I’m also really interested in careers in Data Science since this is essentially what I’ve done these last 5 years in my PhD. I find I really enjoyed working with data to uncover trends and draw conclusions and then communicating these findings, especially to non-technical audiences.
For now, my main goal is to finish my PhD sometime in early 2020 and find a job that I really love. My ideal career would allow me to combine my interests in analyzing data and contributing to crafting evidence-based policies (and hopefully let me still travel).”
On her love of travel and favorite places:
“I love to travel, I get stir crazy if I’m in one place too long. My year of research in the Netherlands was a great experience in part because Europe is so easy to travel on a budget–I went to as many places as I could staying in cheap hostels and bargain hunting for cheap flights. I went to: Dublin, Ireland for St Patrick’s Day; Munich, Germany for Oktoberfest; Paris, France for AfroPunk; London, England for the Notting Hill Carnival; and many more. While, I still think Amsterdam is the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, I found the sights in Vietnam (specially Ha Long Bay and the rice fields of Sa Pa) to be the most beautiful to visit. But my hands down favorite place to visit is Venice, Italy.”
Before I began studying aging, I thought, like many people, that we understood it well–but the more I learn about it, the more I realize how little we understand this process that we are all going through!
Name: Kayse Lee Maass Job: Industrial Engineer Country: United States Age: 29
Kayse Lee Maass is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and leads the Operations Research and Social Justice lab at Northeastern University. She also currently holds a research appointment with the Information and Decision Engineering Program at Mayo Clinic. Dr. Maass’s research focuses on the application of operations research methodology to social justice, access, and equity issues within human trafficking, mental health, housing, and supply chain contexts. Her work is supported by multiple National Science Foundation grants, centers interdisciplinary survivor-informed expertise, and has been used to inform policy and operational decisions at the local, national, and international levels. A recipient of multiple awards, she currently serves as the INFORMS Section on Location Analysis Secretary and is a member of the H.E.A.L. Trafficking Research Committee. Find her onTwitter, LinkedIn, and her website.
On why she chose to study engineering:
“When I was growing up, I was interested in a lot of social justice types of topics, but I also really loved math. I knew I wanted to do something with applied math. In college, I studied math and physics [I had some physics in high school and liked it], but it wasn’t quite what I wanted. I wanted to tie in social justice with math, but I didn’t know how to do that until I took an operations research course in my senior year. That’s when I learned about the field that I’m in, which is industrial engineering.
I like to explain Industrial Engineering as the mathematics of decision making where we can look at things from a systems perspective. It’s nice because anything—any application or any topic that you think of—involves decision making. However, it wasn’t until I was pursuing a PhD in Industrial and Operations Engineering (IOE) from the University of Michigan that my mentors provided me with space and encouragement to explore how industrial engineering and social justice applications, like human trafficking, intertwined.”
On her self-care practices for a healthy lifestyle:
“I’ve been thinking about this [self-care] a lot lately. I read somewhere that when we talk about self-care, what we often need is community care. There are things I personally need to do for self-care, but we also need to make sure we design our systems and communities around making sure people have space to have healthy lifestyles.
As a professor, I work with a lot of students interested in pursuing a PhD or a career as a professor. I know that academia gives this idea that everyone’s always working, rarely has time for fun, and it’s very intense [which it is]. But, that’s not true for everyone in academia, and the assumption that it is true is one of the major barriers to creating an inclusive, diverse academy. I want students interested in academia to know that the field can be welcoming to people with diverse family needs or diverse health needs with different accessibility levels – but to do this I have to help create an academic environment where people know that flexibility and accessibility are the norm. For example, I try to be intentional about encouraging students to step away from their work to take time for their own self-care and relaxation, to be with family, and to generally just not work when they need to not work. This involves setting boundaries between work and other areas of your life and creating an environment where stepping away and having other interests is normal. The workplace can do a better job at normalizing healthy living. In fact, stepping away from your work to focus on other parts of your life is healthy and can lead to you being more engaged and productive once you are back at work!
In my personal life, I try to exercise as much as I can with realistic expectations. If I don’t reach my goal on a day, then self-care for me means I have to avoid being hard on myself for missing the goal. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to listen to my body a lot more, including understanding when I’m starting to get stressed or anxious, and when what my body really needs is to rest rather than move.
On how engineers can help fix healthcare:
“A lot of people in our field also look at healthcare applications. Sometimes it’s looking at telehealth options for people who either cannot drive anymore or live in rural populations. Industrial engineering can help answer questions such as: How can these populations have better access to a healthy lifestyle and check-ins? There are also people in our field who use industrial engineering to determine how often people should get screened for different conditions as they get older. If people were screened all the time, that would put a lot of time and financial burden on patients and they probably would not go to their screening. But if patients are not screened frequently enough, then they might have an undetected medical condition that can progress or get worse over time with limited treatment options available in the future.”
On how she uses data to fight human trafficking:
“There are researchers in other fields that use quantitative data to get insights into what human trafficking. Statisticians are working on better ways to determine the prevalence of human trafficking; economists create economic models to understand ways to reduce the profitability of exploiting people by using trafficked labor; there are quantitative social scientists researching, among other things, ways in which systems of poverty, racism, and homelessness intersect with human trafficking. But, in industrial engineering, there really hasn’t been much prior work focused on data and mathematical, systems-based models to provide decision support to anti-human trafficking stakeholders. For example, there’s often not enough of a budget for anti-human trafficking agencies or non-profits to adequately address the needs of trafficking victims and survivors. They don’t have enough resources. They already have a lot of things they need to do. Industrial engineering is great for those kinds of applications because we can help figure out, “How do I make the most efficient use of my resources?” For example, in some of our current work, we focus on how to increase access to shelters and other services for human trafficking survivors. After people come out of their trafficking experience, they need safe and stable housing options, they need access to food and medical care and many additional things, but those supports currently are not adequately available throughout the world, including the United States.
Some of our work is focusing on determining how to best increase access to shelter and other services if an organization/government has a limited budget to spend. We work with human trafficking survivors to determine what they want and need after they leave their trafficking experience. From this we can answer questions such as: Where should you build these additional shelters? What types of services should each shelter offer? How can the shelters best coordinate with other community support partners? In short, one of the things we as industrial engineers can do is help determine how to most efficiently use your resources to meet your goals.
This a similar problem to something like what any other company would do when they are going to create a new warehouse or storefront. They use these kinds of models to say, “Where am I going to open my next warehouse?” or “Where am I going to open my new store?” And we’re just doing it in a different application while also considering things that aren’t focused primarily on demand and profit. Instead we incorporate more human components as well.”
On her tips for combining engineering and social justice passions:
“It’s important to understand both the technical aspects of industrial engineering and the nuances of social justice issues. Sometimes what can happen is a prospective engineer who has a math/engineering background can get so excited about a social justice topic that they just jump into it without understanding all the nuances and all the complexities of that social justice topic. And while it’s good to have interest and passion in all these topics, it can also be harmful if we don’t understand how there are many different complexities and overlapping systems involved. For example, creating a new decision model that looks at stopping trafficking within a city might just push the traffickers outside of the city and into the suburbs or rural areas, causing problems for other populations or marginalized groups.
So, I think it’s important that industrial engineers come with a passion, and start working on these topics, but also come with the willingness to really get connected with people that have expertise in human trafficking.
It’s important that if you’re making decisions about trafficking-whether through industrial engineering models or policy-, you need to have trafficking victims and trafficking survivors centered at the decision table with you; they understand what the complexities of the system are, and are crucial to making sure that we aren’t having any unintended consequences.” There’s that saying, “Nothing for us without us” that is particularly helpful for us as industrial engineers to remember as we work on problems that have very real impacts on people’s lives.
I read somewhere that when we talk about self-care, what we often need is community care.
Name: Vanessa Rissetto Job: Dietitian Entrepreneur Country: United States Age: 40
Vanessa Rissetto is on a mission to promote healthy eating. She is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist who specializes in Weight Loss, Weight Management, and Medical Nutrition Therapy as it relates to Diabetes, Cardiac Disease, and Gastrointestinal Issues. Her media appearances include Hallmark Channel, Refinery29, Men’s Health, and Chicago Tribune, among others. A chocolate lover, Rissetto lives in the USA with her husband, daughter, son, and four-legged friend Marley! Find her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and her website.
On why she chose to study nutrition:
“I was always interested in science, medicine, nutrition, so I decided to take a few classes at New York University to see if it would be something I would want to pursue – it was!”
On what she has learned about the science behind nutrition:
“That it is science-based, and not just all these gimmicks that people are putting out there. Just because you hear of one study doesn’t mean it’s gospel. We have to find the reasons why and do a deeper dive.”
On how to make healthy eating affordable:
“It can be with proper planning. Just going to the supermarket without anything in mind can cause you to overspend. Having a handle on your schedule and the things you like to eat will ensure you don’t waste.”
On her favorite meal to make:
“I like to roast a chicken at the beginning of the week and use the remainder for a chicken salad or fajitas. It’s pretty versatile and easy to do.”
On her future goals:
“Honestly, I think if I can help people understand the science behind nutrition and get them to have a better relationship with food, then I can consider myself successful.”
It isn’t just about losing weight. It’s about feeling great, re-energizing, and finding a new lust for life.
On episode nine of the LatinX Point of View Podcast hosts Gina Esquivel and Leo Scarpati discuss “Aging in America.” Gina and Leo discuss the overall issue of getting older in the United States and some of the challenges that come with aging. They share a LatinX Point of View on demographic shifts, living longer, cultural values, and quality of life choices. Common themes that emerged during the episode include social security, working class, diversity gap, health care, wealth gap, poverty, and livable community.
America is aging. The average U.S. life expectancy increased from 68 years in 1950 to 79 years in 2013. The older population is also becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Between 2014 and 2060, non-Hispanic white older adults are projected to drop by 24 percentage points, from 78.3 percent to 54.6 percent. This changing demographic creates an interesting question because America has many different cultures that have specific views on longevity and healthy aging.
American culture is youth-obsessed and considers older adults irrelevant. On the other hand, older adults are treasured in Latino culture and are likely to stay with the family as they get older. Americans create their housing options and may live in an institution and see family eventually. Given the population shift, how do we age properly in America? How can we improve the quality of life as we age?
LatinX Point of View Podcast
Listen to the episode on the following platforms. (iTunes, Spotify, Spreaker, Play Music, SoundCloud) LatinX Point of View Podcast covers relevant topics through a cultural lens. Topics include entertainment, culture, business, government, and social justice. Subscribe to the podcast, follow the podcast on Twitter, and contact the hosts via email.
FACTS AND FIGURES
Latinx is the gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina.
Wealth inequality or wealth gap is the unequal distribution of assets among residents of the United states.
The changing racial/ethnic composition of the population under 18, compared with those ages 65 and older, has created a “diversity gap” between generations.
By 2014, 23 percent of men and about 15 percent of women ages 65 and older were in the labor force, and these levels are projected to rise further by 2022, to 27 percent for men and 20 percent for women.
With the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease expected to impact 16 million individuals by 2050, younger generations will increasingly assume caregiving responsibilities. More than a third of today’s caregivers are employed full-time. As millennials take on informal caregiving responsibilities, public and workplace policies must consider financial assistance or other support (e.g., family leave or allocated time off). This report explores the economic impact of the shift to millennial caregivers and the higher rate of incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in minority groups. The report concludes with a discussion of strategies at the organizational-and system-level to support millennial caregivers.
Calls for Action
Define public policy in supporting family caregivers in providing care.
Address how universities can better support student caregivers.
Companies and employers take the lead in supporting working caregivers.
Caregiver supports begin in communities.
To view the white paper, click here.
To view the best practice, click here.
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.
A recentstudycould lead to interventions that extend human lifespan and improve health in our later years. Based on new evidence regarding a DNA-based theory of ageing, this field aims to attenuate diseases of ageing such as cancer, hypertension and Alzheimer’s disease.
Ageing research dates back many years, but thanks to scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging the field has become more widely recognised. Researchers at Buck coined the term ‘geroscience’ to explain the relationship between ageing and age-related diseases. The notion that people are more susceptible to diseases as they grow older rings true to most of us, although some older adults lead healthy and active lives without medical intervention.
“Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 65, and every day, more and more of them are just as fit as me” – so says Linda Marsa, contributing editor at Discover magazine.Richard Johnson, an economist, says “Today’s seniors are healthier, better educated, and more productive than ever.” Despite these positive trends, many would argue that the goal of geroscience – to explain and intervene in age-related diseases including arthritis – remains highly relevant to today’s societies.
Since life extension studies remain inconclusive, scientists are working to improve ‘healthspan’ – the length of time a person is healthy, especially in the later years. Brown University Professor Dr. Stephen L. Helfand is one of several researchers whose work is advancing the rapidly maturing field of ageing science. He is also senior author of the study mentioned above.
This study showed that many transposable elements (TEs) become activated with age in the fruit fly Drosophila* and that this activation is prevented by dietary restriction – an intervention known to extend lifespan. TEs are sequences of DNA (our genetic material) that move (or jump) from one location in the genome to another. Drosophila is a small fruit fly used extensively in genetic research. Why do scientists use fruit flies? Because fruit flies share 75 percent of the genes that cause disease with humans including having a smaller, fully-sequenced genome for easier genetic manipulations. Ultimately, the study provides evidence that preventing TE activation by dietary restriction may be a useful tool in ameliorating aging-associated diseases. The hope is that such results could be applied to humans as research progresses.
“Our demonstration that dietary [restriction], genetic and pharmacological interventions that reduce the age-related increases in [transposon] activity can also extend lifespan suggests new and novel pathways for the development of interventions designed to extend healthy lifespan.” according to this study. Despite the possibility of a true causal relationship, scientists can (happily!) avoid misleading phrases such as the Fountain of Youth, since geroscience hopes to improve health and longevity – not provide some mythical youth potion. Older people are a rapidly growing demographic – by 2100, the number of people aged 60 and over will reach 3.2 billion. It is, therefore, vital that researchers use terms that do not marginalize an increasingly growing demographic – or maintain the current narrative of our youth-obsessed culture.
We have seen major breakthroughs in public health and medical research, including a generational leap in longevity, the use of antibiotics, the completion of the Human Genome Project, and more. Society has also reaped the benefits of new medical technologies and advances in nutrition such as sustainable diets, virtual reality, and food scanners. As the field of geroscience continues to evolve, both public and private sectors may increase investments for ageing research, especially if it can reveal treatments for conditions that afflict older people. More data is also needed to understand and support research findings including the current study by Dr. Helfand. This paper comes as scientists from three universities including, Brown University, New York University and the University of Rochester forge a new partnership in DNA-related research. The collaboration is supported by a five-year, $9.67-million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Hence, study outcomes could have a lasting effect on health and society. David Sinclair, a researcher of ageing at Harvard Medical School, has put this attitude into words: “The goal of this research is not to keep people in the nursing home for longer. It’s to keep them out of nursing homes for longer.”
Sophie Okolo is a public health researcher and science writer. After getting degrees in bioinformatics and public health, Sophie started Global Health Aging, a publication that explores the implications of longer, healthier lives. Find Sophie on Twitter and her website.