Chi Weindel, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow doing research at the Texas A&M University School of Medicine, recently received a prestigious Launch Award from the Parkinson’s Foundation to study factors that influence Parkinson’s disease.
Scientists do not know exactly what factors affect the development of Parkinson’s—and Weindel is trying to find out. She is studying the role that LRRK2 mutations play in Parkinson’s disease and the immune response. LRRK2 mutations have been shown to increase the risk for Parkinson’s disease and also increase susceptibility to bacterial infections such as tuberculosis. Weindel has previously found that animal models that harbor important Parkinson’s disease-associated LRRK2 mutations had more severe tuberculosis infections and were prone to increased inflammation, indicating that LRRK2 plays an important role in the overall immune response.
Weindel’s Launch Award will allow her to study how LRRK2 mutations manifest in the brain. To provide insight into what may trigger Parkinson’s disease, she will determine whether the same immune response she has observed in the peripheral immune system also occurs in the brain’s immune response in the context of chronic tuberculosis infection.
A combination of someone’s genes and experiences, such as what diseases one has had, can influence whether that person develops Parkinson’s disease later in life. “One way to approach these complex diseases is to identify what are all the little paper cuts that someone receives and try to minimize them,” Weindel explained. That way, researchers can determine what factors have the greatest effect on Parkinson’s risk and what risk factors should be identified in patients.
To best study factors that play a role in Parkinson’s risk, Weindel has designed an experiment using a complex animal model based on her observations of how humans are infected in the real world. For example, instead of injecting the animal model with tuberculosis, Weindel has each inhale droplets that altogether contain about 50 tuberculosis bacteria—just like a human would inhale tuberculosis droplets during a conversation with someone who has tuberculosis and would become infected.
Weindel’s experimental setup is based on her observations of the real world. She developed her observational skills during art classes at Mount Holyoke College, where she double majored in studio art and biology as an undergraduate.
“Being a good artist is all about being very observant,” Weindel said. “And that’s really similar to being a good scientist.”
Weindel chose to pursue a career as a scientist after working as a medical technician at a genetic testing company. Although she enjoyed the work she was doing, she wanted to go to graduate school so she could ask and explore new questions in hopes of advancing clinical care. By pursuing a career in research, Weindel hoped to satisfy her lifelong interest in science and help people.
And Weindel’s receipt of her Launch Award is a major stepping stone to help her do exactly that. The four-year award is worth up to $400,000 and will allow Weindel to complete her postdoctoral training, fund her upcoming project and help her begin her career as an independent researcher. The award has two stages: a two-year mentored stage, which Weindel will complete at the Texas A&M School of Medicine as she completes her postdoctoral fellowship, and a two-year independent stage, during which Weindel will begin her own lab at a major research institution.
An independent career is something her mentors Robert Watson, PhD, and Kristin Patrick, PhD, who are faculty in the Department of Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunology at the Texas A&M School of Medicine, think she is ready for. They recruited Weindel to join their lab as she was completing her PhD after noticing her dedication to science: she was completing her experiments without funding after her mentor retired because she wanted to see them through. Since she joined their lab, her dedication to science has continued and she has matured as a researcher.
“It’s been really fun to see Chi grow into an independent scientist,” Watson said. “There’s been a couple of times recently when we’ll have an interaction and afterwards I’ll think ‘Yep, she’s ready to do this job.’ That transformation is amazing to witness and be a part of.”
As she thinks about starting her own research lab in the next few years, Weindel wants to continue mimicking the real patterns of infection in her research. That way, she can make sure her findings are based on what humans actually experience and can be applied in the real—but very complicated—world.
“I love basic science, but I definitely want the basic science that I’m working on to be applicable to humans,” Weindel said. “Receiving this award from a foundation that is focused on not only primary research but making people’s lives better is an amazing validation that my research goals are in line with what I’m doing.”