1. Your name, program, mentor name.
2. Tell me the story of when you realized you were passionate about science.
While volunteering one summer at a sea turtle rescue in Costa Rica, I had a chance to read, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” by Janine Benyus, and I had an epiphany. Her book, which focused on mimicking ingenious solutions found in nature, inspired and invigorated my desire to study the natural world. I came to the sudden realization that even the most seemingly trivial research (such as knowing the molecular composition and structure of a spider’s web) could have profound applications in the real world (such as making stronger materials without using harsh chemical processes). The world became alive with new ideas to explore and mysteries to unravel.
3. Please tell me about yourself, why did you pick UT Health San Antonio, and your program.
While I had a strong interest in biomedical research in my undergrad, it wasn’t until I saw a TED talk “Experiments that hint of longer live” with Cynthia Kenyon that I became motivated to study aging. She demonstrated that a genetic mutation of one gene (daf-2) involved in the insulin-signaling pathway could dramatically extend the lifespan of a nematode (C. elegans).
This was the first time I was introduced to a tangible intervention which could extend healthy human life. I dove into research papers on the topic and discovered that rapamycin (a drug isolated from a bacterium found only on Easter Island) had also been shown to improve healthspan and lifespan in mice. Through my independent research, I found that the top causes of human death worldwide (cancer, diabetes, dementia, cardiovascular disease) were age-related diseases. Therefore, finding an intervention which would extend healthy human aging could ameliorate many of the aforementioned diseases. If these diseases could be prevented using longevity interventions, it would lead to a healthier, self-reliant, and active older population and alleviate the financial burdens of treatment and care. I wanted to find a Ph.D. program that was specific to aging. UT Health San Antonio was my top pick. It had the most researchers dedicated to aging, many papers published on aging interventions and longevity, and they house the NIA Intervention’s testing program (which introduced me to Z. David Sharp, James Nelson, and Randy Strong who were pioneers in the discovery of rapamycin as an aging intervention for the treatment and prevention of age-related diseases), the Nathan Shock center, the Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center (GRECC), the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, and the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center. I felt that this was the best place to get the education and experience that I needed to succeed in aging research.
4) Tell me about your research. Why are you passionate about your research topic? How did you first become interested in it?
My research is in Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Although one in ten people over the age of 65 is diagnosed with AD and one in three seniors die with AD or other dementias, AD is not a normal aging process. It is the age-related result of a dysregulation and dysfunction of many systems throughout the entire body. As an aging researcher, I was interested to test whether some of these aging interventions could slow or halt the progression of AD. My research has put a spotlight on tau, a protein involved in the pathogenesis of neurodegeneration, and how tau may exacerbate brain inflammation. I have found that tau can enter astrocytes (specialized glial cells that are important in neuronal homeostasis) which then induces senescence, causing cells to stop dividing and release pro-inflammatory proteins. This pro-inflammatory environment, in turn, damages neurons and leads to neurodegeneration in AD. I am currently treating mice with senolytics which selectively remove senescent cells to determine whether the removal of these cells can ameliorate cognitive deficits in AD.
This topic is very personal to me. My grandmother died of AD and many people that I know have been affected by this disease. The National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA, an initiative to prevent and treat AD by 2025) is something that I am proud to work towards. I strongly believe that this initiative should be properly funded to achieve this goal.
5. What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?
Currently, there are no known treatments to slow or halt the progression of AD. Survival after diagnosis is an average of four to eight years. Costs related to AD and other dementias cost the US $290 billion per year, and is expected to skyrocket to $1.1 trillion per year by 2050. While other leading causes of death among seniors has decreased in the past 17 years (stroke, heart disease, HIV, etc.), death due to AD has increased 145 percent. Looking towards the future, these staggering numbers are unsustainable as baby boomers enter into retirement age. It is imperative to find druggable targets that can decrease the incidence and severity of the disease.
6. Have you won any awards or are you apart of any organizations/student clubs that you are passionate about?
I recently received an ASPET fellowship which enables developing and early career scientists interested in science policy to learn about and become more engaged in public policy issues. I was also the first graduate student to have an aging interventions proposal accepted by the NIA’s interventions Testing Program (ITP). I have presented my research at over 25 local, national, and international symposia, garnering seven awards. I have received first place in the graduate student data blitz (where I presented my research in a quick talk) at the American Aging Association, and I have received two travel awards from that organization. Additionally, I have received a travel award for the Oklahoma Nathan Shock Center for Geroscience symposium and won poster awards at that conference as well as the South Texas Alzheimer’s conference and Barshop Student Day. I have received the Steunebrink, Bennie W. Schrek, and UTHSCSA Endowed Students scholarships while in graduate school. I am currently funded by the NIA T32 fellowship. I was a founding member and vice-president for the Tech Young Progressives, a student-run organization at Texas Tech University focused on advancing progressive policy on campus. I was a committee member and Emcee for two years for the Edward J. Masoro Barshop Student day.
7. What do you like most about being at UT Health San Antonio or your program?
UT Health San Antonio has one of the best biology of aging programs in the nation. We have the most PI’s dedicated to aging research and a number of state-of-the-art equipment and resources.
8. What do you like to do outside of graduate school?
I am an active member of the Northwest Democrats and I enjoy studying public policy and healthcare policy. I also enjoy photography and theatre.
9. What’s next?
Since I am a fifth-year graduate student, I am looking forward to graduating with my Ph.D. in biomedical sciences and continuing on my path to becoming a researcher dedicated to aging and age-related diseases.