Celebrating Women’s History Month

Hear from three scientists working to understand neurodegenerative diseases

March is Women’s History Month, commemorating the vital role of women in shaping American history. To celebrate, we’re highlighting three scientists who are on the frontlines of biomedical discovery as part of CZI’s Neurodegeneration Challenge Network.

Neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS, are devastating disorders for patients and their families, and there is still much we don’t know about their underlying causes. The Challenge Network takes a new approach to neurodegenerative diseases by bringing new people into the field, helping them collaborate in new ways, and leveraging tools and platforms so they can work together towards cures.

Learn more about these scientists and their work:

Alice Chen-Plotkin, CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network Collaborative Science Awards grantee. Photo by Hannah Yoon.

Alice Chen-Plotkin is a neuroscientist and neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania. A physician-scientist, she runs a research group studying neurodegeneration and sees patients with neurodegenerative disorders.

“Many diseases endanger our health, but neurodegenerative diseases endanger our entire sense of who we are. To work on the biggest problems, with the best team — that’s the kind of thing that can motivate you day in and day out.”

How she got here:

I thought I wanted to work in the arts/humanities because I viewed them as much more creative. So, in college I majored in English literature, and I wrote a collection of poetry for my thesis. I worked in a lab to appease my immigrant doctor parents, who were very alarmed that I was going to spend the next year writing poetry. You can imagine my surprise when this turned out to be something I liked; I had my first inkling then that while science classes seemed very memorization-based, scientific discovery was a creative process.

A pseudo-colored scan of a mouse brain that Alice made for a journal cover. The study was designed to deliver a gene by viral vector. Alice says, “It’s a gene called progranulin, and having half as much progranulin as normal leads to development of frontotemporal dementia, which is a neurodegenerative disease we study.”

One thing she keeps in her office:

I have an antique Tibetan thangka painting that was given to me by my husband when I started the lab. It’s of the Green Tara, a protective deity. My lab jokes that she is the reason that our neighboring lab flooded multiple times while ours was miraculously saved.

One book she enjoys:

I have read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen more than 15 times. I loved it as a young teen and read it nearly every year back then.

Elaine Hsiao, CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network Ben Barres Early Career Acceleration Awards grantee. Photo by Shelby Duncan.

Elaine Hsiao is a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology & Physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles where she leads a laboratory studying how interactions between the microbiome, immune system and nervous system impact health and neurological disease.

“Neurodegenerative diseases extend far beyond neurons and neural circuits. Our team is inspired by the need to understand how the many interactions across body systems together influence disease initiation and progression.”

Elaine’s husband, Leon Hong, made a short film called Me, Myself & Microbes describing her work.

How she got here:

I was first exposed to research as an undergrad volunteer and found joy in executing tasks carefully and interpreting data. As a grad student, I was exposed to the creative freedom in science, where we make choices on what questions to study and how to study them. We also get to see where the big needs in the field are, and to consider how we can help uncover new knowledge. What motivates me is knowing that there are so many unanswered questions out there, mysteries of Nature, that I have the privilege of exploring.

One thing she keeps in her office:

A poop emoji pillow with heart eyes in Elaine’s office. Photo by Shelby Duncan. “My lab studies gut microbes, so poop is a common mealtime and anytime topic.”

One book she enjoys:

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Although not directly pertaining to science, the broader message about the dangers of following collective “truths” really resonated with me. I sometimes face this issue in science, especially when new findings end up challenging existing dogma and are met with resistance among the scientific community.

Debora Marks, CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network Ben Barres Early Career Acceleration Awards grantee. Photo by Kayanna Szymczak.

Debora Marks is a mathematician and computational biologist with a track record of using novel algorithms and statistics to successfully address unsolved biological problems. As a child, she explains, math was one of the only things which calmed her brain and forced her to focus.

“Go big, go risky, and learn statistics.”

How she got here:

Initially, Dr. Marks received her “Part 2” of a bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery, but didn’t pursue a masters, as she was “more interested in theatre and politics than Latin names for bones”. Eventually, she felt the pull back to academia and her first love — math — and went back for her BSc Hons degree in mathematics in 1993, when interdisciplinary studies were not yet popular.

“In England, when you did a math degree…you were not supposed to dilute it with ‘lower value’ subjects like biology, computer science or even physics. I managed to attend an odd course on chaos and fractals that sparked my interest in the intersection of math and biology, and that continues to drive me today.”

A depiction of an AI model.

“We design probabilistic, generative models of data in a deep neural network framework to make predictions on structure and function at different scales. For instance, to the effect of genetic variation and other perturbations on disease likelihood and progression.”

Things she keeps in her office:

  • Lipstick
  • Millions of pens
  • Chocolate

One book she enjoys:

Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin
As a child, Debora never thought she would be a scientist, but instead, a time-traveler, or a professional political protester who would save the world. She loved feminist science fiction writers like Ursula Le Guin and Madeleine L’Engle.

To learn more about CZI’s work in science, visit our website or follow us on Twitter. To stay updated on funding opportunities, sign up for our mailing list. And, you can always reach us at science@chanzuckerberg.com.

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Supporting the science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century.

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