OUR Featured Researcher: Precious Gonzalez '24
Precious (she/her) is an Oberlin College Research Fellow (OCRF) majoring in Neuroscience. She conducts research in Professor Gunnar Kwakye's lab. Her research is titled "Investigating the pathopharmacological interplay between vanadium and vanadium containing compounds in Huntington's disease".
Please describe your research project:
Huntington’s disease (HD) is an inherited neurodegenerative disorder caused by a
genetic mutation in the huntingtin gene that produces the essential huntingtin protein.
HD is characterized by a myriad of symptoms, including movement, cognitive, and psychiatric deficits, and affects roughly 1 in 10,000 people in America. The huntingtin
protein is required for brain development and regulates metal homeostasis. Changes in metal transport and levels have been reported to impair energy production and normal protein function. Furthermore, metal accumulation in the brain has been suggested to exacerbate the severity and progression of HD. While vanadium is one such metal, low levels of vanadium have been reported to activate cellular functions that promote cytoprotection and slow disease progression. In fact, vanadium-based compounds are undergoing clinical trials as a novel treatment for type 2 diabetes. Interestingly, vanadium has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity for individuals with diabetes, which is associated with HD patients. Additionally, previous literature suggests that vanadium could combat a myriad of pathogenic mechanisms underlying HD. Recognizing the link between type 2 diabetes and HD and the therapeutic function of vanadium, our research goal is to investigate the potential therapeutic effects of vanadium in HD.
Why is your research important?
This research may not only lead to a disease-altering treatment, but it can be used to educate at-risk populations who experience high exposures to these chemicals about the potential neuroprotective effect of vanadium and how treatment can potentially prolong the age of onset to HD, reduce symptoms, and slow the progression of the disease.
What does the process of doing your research look like?
Under the guidance of Dr. G. Kwakye and the senior member of the lab, I work with my lab partner to conduct cell survival, mitochondrial health, and protein expression assays. Additionally, our lab frequently meets to discuss the data and brainstorm about future experiments.
What are your findings so far?
Thus far, we have collected data that suggest that exposure of HD striatal cells to low concentrations of vanadium promotes neuroprotection, indicating that vanadium is able to combat cellular mechanisms underlying neurodegeneration in HD such as mitochondrial dysfunction.
In what ways have you showcased your research?
We continue to showcase our research by presenting our data to Professor G. Kwakye and other members of the lab who are unable to be on campus due to COVID-19. Additionally, we are preparing to present our findings to the Oberlin College Undergraduate Research Symposium.
How did you get involved in research on campus?
I discovered my passion for research in my junior year of high school. When I realized that research and its discoveries benefit so many people, I wanted to be a part of that. I was selected as a STRONG scholar, which is a program for underrepresented students, and it provided me with a network of amazing faculty and the opportunity to do research my freshman year.
What is your favorite part about engaging in this work?
My favorite part of research is the community that is built inside and outside of the lab. I work with my other lab members on a daily basis and part of that routine is collaborating to create new ideas or troubleshooting when we encounter a problem. We can depend on one another, and this relationship has fostered a safe and supportive environment.
How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project?
I came into the neuroscience lab with no background in neurodegenerative diseases. However, Professor G. Kwakye, my mentor and advisor at Oberlin, takes the time to meet with us individually to ensure our success throughout Oberlin, which has created a lab environment where I was able to learn, apply, and understand the research we do in a short period of time.
How has it impacted you as a researcher?
Having Professor G. Kwakye as a mentor has set the foundation for my research career at Oberlin College and beyond. For example, Professor G. Kwakye has taught me many valuable skills, such as how to read and critique a scientific article, how to give detailed and engaging presentations, several valuable techniques that are critical to our research, and many more.
How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?
While conducting research, I have been able to apply what I have learned inside and outside of the classroom. Our lab encompasses neuroscience, biology, and chemistry, and applying classroom material to the lab has really solidified my understanding of these concepts and has made me an overall better student.
What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?
My advice is to reach out to the professors. As a woman of color, it was very nerve-racking to talk to my professors. However, in doing so I have established a network and received valuable resources during my first year. Early in my first semester, I reached out to Professor G. Kwakye to express my interest in his lab; if I had not overcome this fear, I would not have had the opportunity to be working with him in the lab this semester.