School of Health Professions

Rehabilitation science student wins fellowship for researching neurodegenerative diseases

Jul 24, 2012

By Andi Enns

Lezi E, a doctoral candidate in the KU department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science, says she always knew she wanted to be a scientist. Either that or an illustrator. As a researcher in Dr. Russell Swerdlow’s neurology lab, E doesn’t get to do much drawing these days.

“When I dissect a mouse brain, I draw a diagram of what I found,” E says, “but it’s not really the same.”

Instead, she studies the impact of long term exercise on mitochondria - the “power plants” of cells in the brain.

“I want to know if exercise can provide more energy to the cells.”

She says she has always been interested in science because her father is a physics professor in Asia. She became interested in medical science as a child in Japan.

“In high school, my cousin died of leukemia at age 18,” E says. “When he died, I decided I wanted to see how I could help and contribute to this field.”

In college at Peking University in Beijing, China, E took an entrance exam to major in basic science research. She says students in China must qualify for their major. Her score was two points too low so the university recommended that she major in nursing.

During her studies to be a nurse, E interned with hospitals in Beijing.

“During my internships, I interacted with a lot of older patients,” E says. “Many of them suffered from Alzheimer’s or stroke, which is what got me interested in this field.”

E says she realized the Asian senior citizen population was increasing rapidly, and it was an area ripe for research.

“I knew it was a place where I could really make a difference.”

And that’s what she told the admissions committee at University of Kansas Medical Center. She said she applied to many American universities but KUMC was the only one where she could do hands on research in her topic of interest. Though her department is rehabilitation sciences, her research is done through the neurology program.

First, she assisted with clinical research for stroke patients. It was very similar to her internship in China, she says. From there she decided to transition into preclinical research to do more ground-level research.

In her new lab, she found out about the Mabel Woodyard Fellowship. Woodyard died in 2008 from a rare neurodegenerative disease called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, which is similar to Parkinson’s. Her family established a fund for young scientists to study neurodegenerative diseases.

“By encouraging trainees to engage in an area of neuroscience discovery early in their careers, we advance the field for generations to come,” said Peter Smith, Ph.D., who directs KU’s Institute for Neurological Discoveries in the May 24 edition of Central Express.

The fellowship is new and E is one of the inaugural recipients. She says she will receive a stipend for the 2012-13 school year to help her conduct research.

“My proposal wasn’t on the disease Woodyard died from,” E says, “but on exercise. Can exercise change the expression of genes in the brain?”

E says she thinks her research could help prevent neurodegenerative diseases in the future. She says she’s excited for this project, because it can translate into clinical studies.

Currently, she is studying the effect of exercise on healthy brains, so she has something to compare later results with. After she graduates in 2013, E says she hopes to continue her studies with a post-doctoral certificate.

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