This week’s “Spotlight” interview shines on Alexa Putka, an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Audrey Dickey, PhD. Putka talks to us about the passion, puzzle-solving, and collaboration that motivate her work to help better understand and reduce the effects of Huntington’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. She also talks about how her recent research fellowship from the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, and enjoying reading, axe-throwing, and time with family when she’s not at Duke.
What are your current responsibilities within the Dickey lab? What does a typical day for you look like?
My current responsibilities vary depending on what experiments we are conducting, which means that my “typical day” is also highly fluid. However, while I am actively working on an experiment, I am highly focused on generating quality data. For example, my recent experiments involve live-cell imaging in neurons using fluorescent calcium indicators to understand the role of mitochondria in buffering calcium to mediate excitotoxicity in Huntington’s Disease (HD).
This project involved extensive research into how to use such calcium indicators, which translated to trial and error on my part in determining how to use these proteins for my experiment. I find this search for the most effective method to study a particular intracellular process to be one of the most exciting parts of my day-to-day research, as I have the opportunity to delve into the literature, further understand the conceptual basis for my experiment, and then compare what other researchers have done to fill in the gaps for my methodology. After generating data, I am able to learn about how to analyze it, fitting these pieces into the larger picture of the intracellular signaling pathways affected by HD.
What do you enjoy the most about your time in the Dickey lab?
My favorite part of research with Dr. Dickey is the pursuit of a solution—I enjoy the search for the pieces of the puzzle that fit together to uncover connections in intracellular pathways, which provide ever-growing strategies to ameliorate the effects of neurodegenerative diseases. I also enjoy working with Dr. Dickey and our other lab members. I find that everyone brings a different perspective to each problem, and the constant collaboration and support provides additional motivation for our research.
What’s the hardest part of your research?
Setbacks are one of the hardest parts about research. Oftentimes, results of an experiment are not what I would expect, and it can be difficult to discern exactly what went wrong. However, when I look at the situation from a different perspective, I view these setbacks as a challenge, a way to test my skills of scientific inquiry, and an opportunity to learn something new. When this occurs, I work with Dr. Dickey and the rest of our lab to understand what happened, and this collaboration provides me with renewed hope that we can find a way around the problem and learn how to use the setback to our advantage. These problems usually help us better understand the protein we are studying, as factors we hadn’t previously considered become important for future experiments.
What plans do you have for what you’d like to do after graduation? If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
Next fall, I plan to apply to Neurobiology PhD programs. I am very interested in continuing to pursue work with neurodegenerative diseases and intracellular signaling pathways that contribute to disease, but ultimately, I hope graduate school will broaden my understanding of other biomedical science fields and current research.
After graduate school, I’m not completely sure what I want to do, but I hope to pursue research in an academic setting because I have a passion for working with students to introduce them to topics that excite me, and I hope to foster my love for science in future students.
You recently received a fellowship from the Huntington’s Disease Society of America to study a research topic related to Huntington’s. What research question are you examining, and how will those results help us better understand or treat Huntington’s?
I am very grateful for the HDSA in supporting my research with Dr. Dickey. My work aims to explore the cellular mechanisms of excitotoxicity in HD. Excitotoxicity occurs when unrestrained glutamatergic signaling, increased intracellular calcium levels, and disrupted BDNF trafficking cause mitochondrial failure and cell death. Preliminary results from our lab indicate that a nuclear transcription factor called PPAR-delta (PPARd) can act as a neuro-therapeutic agent and protect cells against excitotoxicity.
Since excitotoxicity has multiple components, we sought to determine the precise mechanism of PPARd. While these experiments are ongoing, they implicate PPARd in functioning through the excitotoxicity pathway to ameliorate HD pathologies, which means that this pathway can serve as the target of therapeutic agents. The hope is that we can use this research to develop drugs to alleviate the symptoms of patients suffering from HD.
What passions or hobbies do you have outside of Duke?
While I am a very busy student outside of my time in the lab, I greatly enjoy reading nonfiction books, working with incoming Duke students through a program that welcomes them to campus in the summer, and spending time with my friends and family. As an eccentric side note, I also went axe-throwing recently (bars featuring axe throwing seem to be a new trend), which was extremely fun and surprisingly not too difficult. Maybe that will become my new hobby!
Putka enjoys a visit to Chicago (above), as well as amateur axe-throwing, below.
Do you have a (non-headshot) photo of yourself that you can share?