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Dalila Ordonez

College: Hunter College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2015

Outthinking Brain Proteins

Neurons - nerve cells that both send and receive electrical signals - communicate through a complex signaling system that includes a protein called alpha-synuclein. Scientists know that mutations in the gene that produces this protein can cause familial Parkinson's disease. They also know this protein is found in the brains of people with all forms of the disease.

Dalila Ordonez (Hunter College, B.A., Biopsychology '13), a doctoral student in Harvard University's Molecules, Cells and Organisms Program, intends to discover precisely how alpha-synuclein leads to nerve degeneration. Her research is supported by a 2015 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Working with Mel Feany, a professor in the Department of Pathology at Harvard Medical School, Ordonez studies fruit flies that have been genetically modified to overexpress alpha-synuclein, which recreates the clinical features of Parkinson's disease. Just like humans, fruit flies with this condition develop problems with movement and lose nerve cells that are essential for survival.

"I'm looking into genes that have homology to humans," Ordonez says, using a term referring to genes that have a similar function. "If what we find is true in the fruit fly, it's likely that we'll see the same in a mouse and in humans."

She hypothesizes that alpha-synuclein causes toxicity by misregulating another protein, actin, which is found in all nerve cells. When actin goes awry, it interferes with the workings of mitochondria, the parts of cells that generate energy. If this turns out to be true, Ordonez explains, researchers will have a new model for alpha-synuclein dysfunction in Parkinson's disease, which could open up additional avenues for treatment.

As an undergraduate, Ordonez conducted research with Hunter professor Jesus A. Angulo, a neurobiologist who concentrates on the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which brains recover from injury. In his lab, she studied the drug methamphetamine, which, like cocaine, not only induces addiction, but also kills neurons. Ordonez contributed to three of Angulo's papers, which all dealt with the neurotoxicity of methamphetamine and how the brain attempts to recover from damage.

Her interest in neurodegeneration started when she studied with an expert, Hunter professor Maria Figueiredo-Pereira. In her lab, Ordonez worked toward developing a rodent model to study the role of neuroinflammation in the degeneration of dopaminergic neurons, which are specialized neurons that are the main source of dopamine in the mammalian central nervous system. Dopamine is a chemical intricately involved with functions including movement, and the loss of these neurons (for reasons yet to be explained) leads to Parkinson's disease.

Ordonez, born in Ecuador, was raised in New York City and attended Grover Cleveland High School, where she became entranced with chemistry and biology. Now teaching an introduction to biology at Harvard, she looks forward to an academic career in research and the classroom.

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is the most prestigious award for graduate studies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. This federal grant provides $138,000 over three years for doctoral-level research.