Featured Article December 17, 2021

JAX Alumni stories: Brianna Gurdon

A conversation with Brianna Gurdon, Summer Student Class of 2018 and Ph.D. candidate in JAX’s Kaczorowski lab

A conversation with Brianna Gurdon, Summer Student Class of 2018 and Ph.D. candidate in JAX’s Kaczorowski lab.

How did you first hear about JAX and what drew you to us? 

At my undergraduate institution, Allegheny College, all students complete a senior comprehensive project to highlight their skills and interests. Students in the science departments have the unique opportunity to work on their project over the course of the year, and I was keen to study the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). With the hopes of updating the college’s mouse colony to reflect the most translational models of AD, I found myself immersed in everything JAX has to offer. The  Summer Student ProgramA ten-week summer research fellowship in mammalian genetics and genomics. Summer Student Program really captured my attention just as I was starting to get into neuroscience, physiology, and genetics. As a student graduating in December rather than May, I had one more summer to capitalize on before graduation and knew I wanted to spend it at JAX.  

That first summer must have been a positive experience because you returned in 2019 and have been with JAX since. Can you walk me through your roles at JAX over the past few years?

After graduating from Allegheny, I came back to work with the Summer Student Program in 2019 as their resident assistant (RA). We had a great team, and the summer was a blast. It was a whole new experience being on the other side of things and trying to manage the group. During that summer, I was always making the most of my time because I was managing students at Highseas while also essentially starting my intern position in the  The Kaczorowski LabI lead a collaborative and interinstitutional research program that uses a multidisciplinary approach to identify early causative events underlying ‘normal’ nonpathological age-related memory decline and Alzheimer’s dementia.Kaczorowski lab. Before applying for the RA position, I had reached out to  Catherine Kaczorowski, Ph.D.Identify early causative events that underlie cognitive deficits associated with ‘normal’ aging and Alzheimer’s diseaseCatherine  [Kaczorowski] to ask if she would be interested in having me back in her lab for a second summer. We had a great relationship during my first summer there and she was more than enthusiastic to welcome me back into the lab and offer me a full-time position as a research intern. As a research intern, we get to take on our own projects but ultimately still contribute to the bigger lab goals.

Since the research internship is meant to be a transitional position, I kept thinking about grad school and “what’s next?” I liked being here [JAX] and I developed strong working relationships with my other lab mates and Catherine. I started looking around at schools and I always kept coming back to systems genetics, mouse work, neuroscience, and I thought, "That's everything I have right here!" I'd already put so much effort into this imaging project that I've been working on for the last year and a half, so it was a really natural transition into the UMaine Ph.D. program here at JAX. It made complete sense. I started last spring, so I’m now in my second semester of the coursework and forming committees. It's a busy time.

Can you tell me more about your imaging project and how it ties into the research of the Kaczorowski lab?

Within the field, we know that aging is the greatest risk factor for developing AD. However, it has become increasingly apparent that there are genetic factors that impact the age of AD symptom onset and the severity of those symptoms. AD can also present itself in many forms, with some individuals being resilient to the cognitive decline while others are more susceptible. Our lab aims to understand how individual differences in clinical outcomes are mediated by one’s genetic makeup, which may be the link to finally developing more informative diagnostic methods, preventive treatments, and potentially a cure for AD.

Since it is difficult to study the progression of human AD over time, and we are at JAX, our lab has developed a genetically diverse population of mice that develop AD-like symptoms and pathology, like humans, but on an expedited timeline. Within our lab, we use this mouse panel to identify resilience factors that enable individuals that are genetically predisposed to develop Alzheimer's disease to remain cognitively intact late in life. I tackle this objective by taking an imaging approach, which I've started as the foundation of my thesis. The overall goal of my research is to use immunohistochemistry brain-imaging to generate novel brain maps across various strains of our AD-BXD mouse population and determine which brain regions and cell types protect individuals and allow for memory retention with age and AD. Using this dataset, I can take a really unbiased approach and scan across the whole brain and see where potential neurodegeneration or neuroinflammation is occurring and investigate how different cell types are interacting with age and disease status.

By combining my assessment of brain health with mouse genetic data, I can identify the genes that are related to changes in cell composition and potentially shielding individuals from AD-related decline. This is important because detecting genetic factors that allow some individuals to remain cognitively intact late in life may provide key targets for the treatment or prevention of AD. The shift toward taking precision medicine approaches and my work of linking one’s genetic makeup with cellular changes in the brain is contributing to the beginning of a new era in medicine that aims to assess AD on an individual basis.

Being at JAX and within the Kaczorowski lab provides me with ample opportunities to incorporate various data types and collaborate with labs across the globe. For example, I am able to integrate MRI parameters or single nuclear and bulk RNA sequencing data, so I can look at everything from regional brain atrophy, to behavior, cell composition, and gene expression measures to begin to understand how a pattern of interacting factors could lead to susceptibility vs resilience to decline with AD. As the field develops, the concept of “the more you learn, the less you know" is ever pertinent as I work to expand my foundation of knowledge and stay on top of all the all-new methods that can be applied and findings coming out in the field. If you’re interested in learning more about how my work aims to fill a gap in the AD imaging field, read my review article (Pursuit of precision medicine: Systems biology approaches in Alzheimer's disease mouse models) that I recently had published in Neurobiology of Disease!

What are your goals after your PhD?

So many options and directions go through my mind when asked this question, especially since I am just beginning my PhD career! Some days I can see myself in the computational realm because we work with computational sciences a lot and I appreciate the innovative solutions that they are able to devise. I would also love to pursue research at the bench whether that be on the academic or industry side. I like writing and editing so that’s another avenue as well! I want to talk to as many people as possible and open every door I can. I can't narrow down anything right now, but I will be taking note of how the field evolves and where I would best fit. I feel like JAX is definitely going to set me up well for whatever I end up settling on.

What is it about JAX and the Kaczorowski lab that has kept you committed to our institution?

Everyone is incredibly dedicated to their work in our lab, and we are coming up with big ideas that are receiving grant funding. Everything trickles down, and everything works up, since the lab has a really collaborative team dynamic. Everyone is really open to helping and brainstorming. Even if you're just looking for a grammar check on an essay, people don't mind assisting. It's really great that I can turn to anyone here.

I feel like it’s the same on a JAX-wide basis, too, because we've turned to other labs and I've asked other people internally for advice when I was trying to figure out certain problems. The resources at JAX and the different cores, like the Microscopy Core, are another unique benefit of being here. Being in Acadia is a big seller for me, too. 

You mentioned Acadia, how do you spend your time outside of the lab?

I'm a really active person. I love being in the [Acadia National] park. The most recent addition to my busy schedule was becoming a full team member of the Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue Team. That's my way of giving back to the park because I spend so much time in it. I think it's a great opportunity to help out and learn new skills. Team members are so well versed and know the knots of a sailor, have the nimbleness and anchor building skills of a climber, all while acting as a medic in between. It’s a volunteer-based outreach, and we work with the park system. You can be on call whenever you’re in the vicinity and it’s definitely a team effort.