Van Andel Institute Graduate School is home to exceptional students from across the U.S. Working on an individual thesis under the guidance of a distinguished faculty mentor, Graduate School students are bright, inquisitive, independent learners with a passion for biomedical research.
Undergraduate University: Anderson University (B.A. Biology)
Thesis: The molecular mechanisms of VPS35-linked Parkinson’s disease
Mentor: Darren Moore, Ph.D.
How would you describe your area of study to your grandmother?
I study Parkinson’s disease, which causes a subset of neurons in the brain that help to control movement, to slowly degenerate and die. This ultimately causes the hallmark motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease to manifest. Although the vast majority of Parkinson’s disease cases have no known cause (also known as idiopathic Parkinson’s disease), about 10% of cases are caused by genetic mutations. These mutations can be passed down from generation to generation, causing certain families to have increased incidents of Parkinson’s disease. Of the 12 or so genes that have been shown to have Parkinson’s disease causing mutations, I study one called VPS35. The VPS35 gene makes a protein that goes by the same name. The short-term goal of my research is to understand how the disease-associated mutation in VPS35 alters the function of this protein to cause neurons to die. On the other hand, the long-term goal of my research is to identify common cellular pathways between inherited and idiopathic Parkinson’s disease so that new therapeutic options can be discovered.
What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?
My goals as a researcher are to improve the human condition and to educate people in the sciences. In order to achieve these goals, graduate school was a must. Even though graduate school is very challenging, I remind myself that in order to improve the human condition, I have to persevere through the tough times.
What do you want to do with your degree?
The reason that I love science is because I get to continuously make discoveries. I love to design, perform, and troubleshoot experiments. Because of this, I want to stay in the lab doing bench science as my career. Ultimately, I would like to be a senior research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry.
Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?
I started graduate school right after finishing my undergraduate work at Anderson University. In hindsight, taking a year off to gain experience in biomedical research might not have been a bad idea.
What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?
Picking just one is a bit tricky, but my favorite at the moment is archery. Although I am new to the sport, I find archery extremely relaxing. In addition to being relaxing, it helps teach me focus, which obviously comes into good use in graduate school.
How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?
I would like to think that earning a Ph.D. will allow me to think outside the box as both a scientist and a leader. Additionally, I think that earning an advanced degree will help me be an example to the next generation of scientists.
What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?
Academically, I am most proud of my first publication, which was a review published in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease. Personally, I am most proud of marriage. Graduate school would be much more difficult without my husband, who is my own personal cheerleader. I am lucky to have a great support system in my parents, siblings, in-laws, and extended family.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about your doctoral education experience?
Graduate school is really hard. Make sure you have a great support system, because you will need it.
Don’t listen to the voice in your head that is telling you that you aren’t good enough. If you were accepted into graduate school, it wasn’t by chance.