Yasmine carefully places a rectangular plastic plate in the reader machine. She waits anxiously as it analyzes each of the 96 tiny wells in the plate. Will the results show some measurable effect of the treatment she is testing? Or, will the weeks of work leading up to this moment have been futile?
Yasmine Mourad C’13 is one of six neuroscience students who – thanks to a grant from the Sentience Foundation – spent June and July researching possible treatments for Alzheimer’s disease with Dr. Roger Knowles as part of the Drew Summer Science Institute (DSSI).
Fifty-two students in total participated in the competitive, interdisciplinary DSSI program this year. These students enjoy an unusual level of involvement in the design, execution and analysis of advanced research projects with their faculty mentors. They work full-time throughout the summer and receive a stipend through private donations. For the second year, the Sentience Foundation has selected Drew as one of its two recipients for grants to high-quality undergraduate summer studies in neuroscience.
Each year, Dr. Knowles’ students work with him on various aspects of Alzheimer’s research, including factors that have shown promise for the prevention or treatment of the disease. Alzheimer’s causes brain cells to die, leading to a decline in memory and mental function. It is one of the most costly diseases, for which there is currently no cure, and expected to be more so as the population ages. An expert in Alzheimer’s, Knowles earned a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard University while doing research in the Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Knowles’ student are learning and practicing advanced laboratory techniques: from dissecting the brains and placenta of rats in order to grow neurons and stem cells in the cell culture lab to preparing culture plates to study possible treatments. Each is a very delicate task that requires careful attention to conditions and procedures in order to produce reliable results. Knowles’ expects plenty of trial and error, and watches tremendous progress in his students over the course of the summer.
“I am always trying to balance the goal of moving the research forward with the goal of developing my students’ research skills. Sometimes that means the research might advance more slowly, but teaching is the most important thing I do,” says Knowles.
Finally, in her last week in DSSI, Yasmine has been able to prepare and perform a test that might show some protective effects of stem cells. “I’ve been doing Alzheimer’s research for three years now, and learned that failure is part of the process. But, if you have the patience, motivation and passion to keep pushing further, the gratification that comes with success, by far, overrides the frustration.”