Becoming an Alzheimer’s Researcher: My Journey
In 2009, someone at the Build a Bear Workshop heard about my project and invited me to apply to become one of their huggable heroes. As a Huggable Hero, I was invited to St. Louis for an amazing experience. That’s where I met some very inspirational young people, many of whom have remained my friends to this day.
This trip included an amazing ceremony at the St. Louis Zoo, which was kept open in the evening for our private group. In the photo above, we were painting a mural for an inner city school in St. Louis. The Build a Bear Workshop gave each winner a $2500 check that could be donated to any charity of our choosing. PuzzlesToRemember was not yet a 501c3 organization, so I decided to donate my check to the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease center. I was invited to the Alzheimer’s Disease Center, where I met some of the people that I work with to this day. It was a pivotal moment in my life.
On that first visit, I was invited to volunteer there during the following summer, when I turned 14. I was told that my work would be mostly clerical, and not glorious, but I would be around where Alzheimer’s research was really happening. I spent the summer of 2010, typing endless names into the computer and carrying boxes up flights of stairs, but it was worth every minute of that for the few awesome opportunities I had. Soon, I was invited to attend a weekly journal club about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, just as it was being discovered. I learned a great deal at those meetings, and I was treated like everyone else. Everyone else consisted of medical students, post-docs, and researchers. I was even invited to the Bedford Brain Bank, where I held in my hands the brain of an athlete that had died of CTE and witnessed with my own eyes the destruction and how it was similar and also different from the destruction in Alzheimer’s disease.
The director of the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Dr. Robert Stern, had been honest with me. My job that summer had not been glorious. I kept working in the office until the following May when I was cleared to work in the lab. I was so happy when May finally arrived and I began my work in the Molecular Psychiatry and Aging Laboratory, where I work currently.
My research covers various enzymes and their relationship to Amyloid Beta, a protein implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. In particular, my research examines the effects of various peripheral and central ACE inhibitors on the risk of AD, and the correlation of ACE activity in the blood serum with that in the central nervous system. Dr. Qiu, my mentor and Principal Investigator, anticipates that several publications may result from this work. I am also working with transgenic mice, testing the effects of certain hormones on the buildup of Amyloid Beta and Tau. My abstract about this work has been accepted, and I will be giving a poster presentation about this research at the 2013 American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry’s annual conference.
What I have found most wonderful about working on the Boston University School of Medicine campus is the teamwork that seems ever present. No world-famous researcher seems to feel above doing data entry, or, even, moving boxes, and no lowly intern’s ideas are met with anything but interest, respect, and encouragement.
For the past 3 years, I’ve also been an editor for the AlzheimersReadingRoom.com, where I have the opportunity to interact with caregivers around the globe. Many times these caregivers ask me how to explain Alzheimer’s to their young children. For this reason, I am now completing a manuscript for children ages 4 through 9, hopefully explaining Alzheimer’s disease on a level they can understand, while also providing them with some helpful coping skills. I hope to find a publisher for my book soon.
I have spent my life watching others, discerning their needs, and trying to do my best to help them. But, I continually receive back much more than I could ever give. Knowing I put a smile on the face of someone who experiences only confusion and agitation is the greatest of rewards.