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Meet the Women Driving Research at The Michael J. Fox Foundation

MJFF Women Researchers.JPG

Meet the Women Driving Research at MJFF: Nicole Polinski, PhD (left); Jamie Hamilton, PhD; Jamie Eberling, PhD; Shalini Padmanabhan, PhD; Liliana Menalled, PhD; Samantha Hutten, PhD (right)

For women’s history month, we want to introduce you to the talented women scientists on staff at The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF). We were co-founded by a woman, Debi Brooks, back in 2000 and today women make up half the scientists on our staff, holding key roles across all our research endeavors.  

These seven women bring unique backgrounds, expertise, and research interests to MJFF. Here, we get to know more about them and the critical contributions they are making to our mission to cure Parkinson’s.  

MJFF: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in science? 

Some were born with a love of science:  

Liliana Menalled, PhD, Senior Associate Director, Research Programs: Since I was young, I enjoyed all science-related subjects, from biology to chemistry. My decision to become a scientist was greatly influenced by my older cousins, who were already scientists. Once I learned that I could devote my career to curing a disease, I was determined to follow that path! My parents were in business, but I was always more interested in what my cousins were doing. I don’t think I ever told them they were my inspiration.  

Nicole Polinski, PhD, Senior Associate Director, Research Programs: I’ve always been a curious, creative, and analytical person, so science was a natural fit for me. I’m interested in how things work and what is known versus unknown. To get at those answers, I naturally gravitated toward math, biology, and chemistry. Once I started taking more rigorous science classes and working in a lab, I found those experiences and environments rewarding. It’s been a pretty clear path for me thus far.   

For these two, a class sparked their interest: 

Jamie Eberling, PhD, Vice President, Research Programs: I took a class about neurodegenerative diseases from a wonderful professor when I was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. He ended up helping me get my first job after I finished graduate school (also at UC Berkeley), conducting research studies in Alzheimer’s patients using PET imaging. That professor had a huge impact on the trajectory of my career, and it all began in that neuroscience class. 

Katie Kopil, PhD, Vice President, Research Partnerships: An introductory neuroscience class in college made me completely enthralled with the brain. The course was called ‘The Brain: A Users Guide,’ which so perfectly encapsulates what is amazing about the brain. The brain is who you are! And we understand so little of how it works, but we depend on our brain to try to figure it out. Mind blown. To this day, I continue telling everyone who will listen that the brain is who you are.  

For others, the reason was closer to home: 

Shalini Padmanabhan, PhD, Director, Research Programs: Growing up in an academically driven Indian family, I was genetically primed to choose between a math or science career. I pursued a career in science not through inspiration but rather by elimination.  

Jamie Hamilton, PhD, Senior Associate Director, Research Programs: I grew up with a physician in the house and was exposed to the sciences at an early age. I always had a keen interest in the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of science and wanted to pursue a career, where I could make an impact. 

Samantha “Sam” Hutten, PhD, Senior Associate Director, Research Cohorts: My mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was in high school, which sparked my interest in biology and neuroscience. I majored in neuroscience and behavior in college and then went on to pursue a PhD in biomedical sciences. By then, she had developed Alzheimer’s, which solidified my calling to do research to better understand and ultimately facilitate treatments for these types of disorders. 

MJFF: How did you become involved in Parkinson’s disease? 

For a few, the journey began in graduate school: 

Liliana: When I started graduate school, I had the opportunity to rotate through different laboratories before selecting one. One of the groups focused on basic research in Parkinson's disease. The leader of the group, who treated patients daily, brought to the team not only a passion for Parkinson’s research but also the patients' experience. We saw patients before and after dopamine treatment and understood the real difference therapeutics can make in people’s lives. That was very energizing to me and put into perspective the importance of the work done in a research lab.  

Nicole: I first became involved in Parkinson’s disease through work in a research lab. For my PhD, I studied mechanisms for delivering therapies to the brain — specifically regions of the brain affected by Parkinson’s disease. Later in graduate school, I became involved in community education events and advocacy work. I had the privilege of interacting with Parkinson’s disease patients and their loved ones, which brought deeper meaning to my work. As a result, I decided to dedicate my career to Parkinson’s. 

For others, their work on Parkinson’s began later: 

Shalini: A lot of my early work as a graduate student focused on studying dopamine signaling and regulation in cellular systems where the disease connection was weak. Given that dopamine signaling is altered in Parkinson’s disease, I sought labs that were conducting Parkinson’s research for my postdoctoral training. This search brought me to Columbia University, where I applied gene therapy approaches to study the degeneration and regeneration of brain cells in Parkinson’s. This work made me realize the challenges that the research and patient community face, and I wanted to contribute to advancing our knowledge in the area.  

Working at a foundation isn’t a common career path for researchers. What brought you to The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF)? 

For everyone, it's about the mission and the focus on people with Parkinson’s: 

Sam: For my PhD thesis project, I used a set of research tools (antibodies) generated by MJFF. I saw how the Foundation’s work was opening the door to new ways of exploring the biology of Parkinson’s disease. Even though I liked working in the lab, I wanted to be part of that bigger picture. Working at the Foundation has afforded me the unique opportunity to collaborate with scientists trying to understand the disease, industry groups developing cures, and patients participating in research studies. I see the impact of our mission every day.  

Jamie H.: Early on, I thought I was going to be an academic, dedicating half my time to research and half to teaching. While job hunting, I started exploring alternative ways to apply my skill set. I was contacted by a headhunter who was looking for someone with neuroimaging, cognition and clinical trial design expertise for a role at MJFF. I was thrilled to find out that my interests and expertise were well-aligned with MJFF’s mission. 

Jamie E: I had admired MJFF for years and knew a lot about it since I was involved in Parkinson’s research. I saw a job opening for a scientist position, and I thought it would be amazing to work for such an impactful organization. I applied for the job and the rest is history. Best decision of my life. Not only do I get to do meaningful and rewarding work, but I get to live in the greatest city in the world, New York! 

Tell us about your work at MJFF. 

This group is working across our entire portfolio to advance MJFF’s mission:  

Katie: I lead research partnerships, which is a team that focuses on building relationships with other stakeholders in Parkinson’s drug development. We want to be a nimble problem-solver for the field, ensuring that the patient perspective is an integral part of every initiative. Specifically, I work with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies on the Foundation's scientific and educational programs. I also lead the team working on patient engagement in research, which includes Fox Trial Finder.  

Nicole: At MJFF I manage two distinct portfolios. One focuses on ensuring researchers have access to key tools and reagents to perform their experiments. This is important as a lack of proper tools and reagents can drastically slow progress and is a barrier to finding a cure for Parkinson’s. My other portfolio focuses on building our program investigating the role of the immune system in Parkinson’s. We’ve known for a while that inflammation plays some role in the disease, but it is unclear whether inflammation is a cause or consequence of Parkinson’s. Can inflammation be tracked as a marker for Parkinson’s, or can the immune system be targeted with therapeutics to manage disease symptoms or alter progression? My role is to understand the interplay between the immune system and Parkinson’s disease and to build a portfolio of research projects to address these key questions. 

Shalini: At the Foundation, I manage our priority biology portfolio that aims to understand the role of high priority targets and pathways (e.g., LRRK2, Parkin, PINK1, GBA, inflammation) in how Parkinson’s develops and progresses. This work leads to the development of new biomarkers and therapeutics for the disease. Once we understand the processes that are happening in Parkinson’s, we can design interventions to slow or stop the disease.  

Liliana: As a member of the therapeutics team, I work on shaping the strategy of the Foundation’s portfolio of potential new treatments for Parkinson’s. The goal is to keep the therapeutic pipeline robust and growing. I am always looking for novel and promising therapeutic approaches. 

What aspect of Parkinson’s research are you most excited about in the year ahead? 

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting research, our scientists are optimistic about the progress we can make this year: 

Nicole: I’m excited about the potential to make great strides in research through the analysis of samples provided by patients. To better diagnose Parkinson’s and monitor its progression, we have to understand what is happening in the bodies of people who have it. Through MJFF’s efforts and the participation of patients and their loved ones, we now have great resources of patient biosamples to enable this work. This year, I expect we will see results from studies using these samples and a host of new studies getting started that will help us to better understand Parkinson’s. Information from these studies will empower the research community and bring groundbreaking discoveries. 

Shalini: The emergence of new genetic targets is stimulating the field with new biology to pursue for 2020 and beyond. And I continue to be amazed by the patient community and their enthusiasm in contributing to research.  

Katie: Person-centered research! 

Jamie E: I am committed to developing an alpha-synuclein PET tracer that can be used in clinical trials. I am excited that we have made progress in this area and hopeful that we will be successful in the next couple of years. This is a very big challenge, but the payoff will be immense. 

Jamie H.: There are so many things to look forward to, but I am most excited about our RFA in partnership with the American Occupational Therapy Foundation (AOTF). It complements our gait and balance and technology initiatives by focusing on how occupational therapy can benefit people with Parkinson’s. I’m also looking forward to seeing preliminary outcomes generated from the RAD-PD project, which is a study examining deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapy with the goal of improving its outcomes. 

Liliana: I am excited about new technologies and approaches that will enter clinical trials this year! 

Sam: It’s hard to choose one thing, because there is so much momentum in Parkinson’s research. There is an unprecedented number of therapies in clinical trials and even more on the way.  MJFF and others have developed rich biomarker datasets that are now available through AMP PD. The potential of that data for Parkinson’s research is immense. And all the work we have done in PPMI and other studies have charted a route toward prevention. It starts with measures of Parkinson’s in its earliest stages, before symptoms appear. We are making progress toward a future in which no one gets Parkinson’s.  

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