Graduate Amani Allen contributes to Parkinson’s disease research


Abby Scutch, Editor in Chief

It’s odd and peculiar to think of cutting into an animal’s brain, particularly that of a rat. It may seem inhumane or unethical.  However, that is not the case at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.  In fact, it’s providing groundbreaking research into the widely known devastating effects of Parkinson’s disease.

For the past two summers, FHC graduate Amani Allen has been working with Caryl Sortwell,  Ph.D., a translational science and molecular medicine professor at MSU who specializes in Parkinson’s research. Through FHC’s research class program, Allen contacted Sortwell during her junior year asking if Sortwell would be willing to mentor her.

Allen is involved in a program with the National Institute of Health.  At the end of the summer, Allen will go to a conference where she will explain and present work she has done involved in studying Parkinson’s.

A typical day in the lab for Allen begins around 9 a.m.  She reads a piece of specific research literature and then begins working and offering help around the lab.

“Amani was responsible for sectioning tissue, using antibodies to identify specific cells within the tissue and quantification of those cells,” Sortwell said.

Amani also participated in surgical procedures as well as including studying applications on rat brains.

Explaining the use of rats in the lab, the group studying Parkinson’s disease uses these animals because the brains of rats are incredibly similar to the human brain.  By using rats to test treatments, researchers can have a better understanding of how treatments will affect humans.

Allen continued to explain that after identifying a particular part of a cell, she stains it a certain color to have a better view of it under a microscope.  She also helps out by counting proteins, mounting tissue to be looked at under a microscope, and assisting in a behavioral study by watching rats run on a treadmill.

“At first, cutting rat brains was hard for me,” she said.  “I am cutting into what once was a live animal, but I always remember that it is beneficial for humans and look past it.”

According to Sortwell, Amani has helped optimized a model of Parkinson’s disease that will be used to identify new therapeutic treatments to help patients who suffer from this disorder.

Although indirectly helping Sortwell, Allen would assist a graduate student working in the lab.  Frequently, meetings were held with Sortwell and the graduate student to go over Allen’s progress, discuss research articles, and plan the next part of Allen’s projects.

Beginning in the fall of 2017, Allen will be attending Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Beyond scientific techniques that Allen has already learned and demonstrated, Allen will be able to use scientific presentation skills which she has mastered in a multitude of situations while at Cornell.

“My current plan is to take the pre-medical route and become a doctor and major in Human Biology Health and Society,” Allen said.  “However, since I have been working in the lab, I am also open into becoming someone like Caryl and earn my Ph.D. so I can begin conducting my own research.”

Continuing to explain her future plans, she hopes to get involved in clinical sciences for experience and to have a better understanding of what specific scientific field she would like to study.

“This research program has helped me solidify my interest of going into a field of science along with the possibility of getting my Ph.D. or going into clinical sciences,” Allen said.  “At Cornell, having some research background before entering undergrad will give me a boost in comparison to my other classmates who may not have had this experience.”

Allen will mainly be taking science courses, so this research program will help her significantly in the future.

Throughout high school, Allen took Advanced Placement Chemistry and Advanced Placement Biology.  Those classes along with the three year research program offered at FHC will most likely provide her the best foundation when she begins college.  Allen also said that biology teacher Kristy Butler had an impact on her while she was student.

“Amani was an exceptional student,” Butler said.  “She was very passionate about her topic of study and that helped drive her work.”

Butler is very confident that FHC’s research program will help Allen while studying at Cornell University.  The program requires students to be self directed while being able to manage time well.

Continuing to explain the purpose of the research program, Butler explains that Amani has grown tremendously over the course of three years as she has gained valuable presentation skills, learned how to read and analyze scientific journal articles, and has been a constant support for her peers.

“My role was to support Amani and help provide her the resources and skills she would need in lab,” Butler explained.  “At a point very early on, Amani become the expert in her content and knew much more than I did in regards to the area she was studying.  My role was to help provide her with support through the writing process of the larger science competitions.”

While working at MSU’s lab, Allen keeps her grandmother in mind as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, another neurodegenerative disease.

“I have always been interested in a field of science, so doing something that I know is beneficial to others, specifically with Parkinson’s disease, is rewarding to know,” Allen said.

Butler agrees as she said Amani is a very kind and generous person.

“While she’s an exceptional student, she is an amazing individual who builds strong relationships with her peers and truly wants to do good in the world,” Butler said.

Sortwell clearly states that finding a single cure to Parkinson’s disease will be extremely difficult, especially since there are likely many different genetic and environmental causes that result in the final disease pathology.

“I think we are making inroads by identifying what causes can be and developing better models of the disease to vet potential therapies,” Sortwell said.  “In the short term, we are not seeing a cure, but ways to slow or halt the progression of the disease so that patients who already have Parkinson’s disease can have an improved quality of life and outlive their disease.”

Continuing, Sortwell says that MSU has developed therapies that are planned to be used in clinical trials.

“Amani’s future is very bright,” Sortwell said.  “She has an intellect far beyond most young scientists for her age, and yet I do consider her a younger ‘scientist.’ I hope that she uses science to try to solve a major health question facing our country.”

From instilling the concept of looking at a problem from many perspectives and the need to work as a team in science, Sortwell has tried to encourage Allen’s intellectual involvement and not just relate to her as a set of helping hands in the the lab.

“I have learned that little things definitely add up and that there are a lot of steps to get a big outcome,” Allen said.  “Research takes many, many years to conduct.  So, when the summer ends, I will not see the end result, but knowing that my work is going toward something beneficial is truly amazing.”