Faculty Spotlight: Constanza Cortes, PhD

Constanza Cortes, PhD

Assistant Professor Constanza Cortes, PhD

Despite the fact that it’s the center of all human thought and consciousness, much about the human brain, such as how it ages, or how it communicates with the rest of the body, remains unexplored. Constanza Cortes, PhD, hopes to change that. In this Faculty Spotlight interview, Cortes talks to us about her research on the molecular and cellular changes that occur in the aging brain, how seemingly unrelated systems such as skeletal muscle may influence brain aging, and discusses how her love of Latin dancing (including competing in the 2015 World Latin Dance Cup) keep her busy when she’s not at work.

What are your responsibilities within the Neurology Department? What does your average work day look like?
I am research faculty, which means I spend most of my day doing neuroscience research in my lab. My field of interest is understanding how our brain ages, using animal and human stem cell models to understand the cellular and molecular changes in the aging brain. This is particularly fascinating as age is the most common risk factors for many neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. If we can identify pathways that modulate aging of the central nervous system, we may be able to develop therapies for Alzheimer’s disease and help our brain heal itself.

My days are usually spent split between the lab bench and writing. At the bench I perform cutting-edge experimental protocols with the assistance of my research team. As a principal investigator, my role further includes writing a lot of research grants to obtain the funding necessary to carry out our work. Writing manuscripts and publishing papers is also a huge part of my day to day, which also require some graphic design skills to generate manuscript figures and graphical abstracts. I also coordinate with our collaborators from other institutions, assist with several science outreach initiatives both locally and nationally, and communicate with my network to maintain a presence on the field. It is a delicate act to balance working both at the bench and at the desk, but they are both fundamental parts of a scientist’s life and I enjoy them both equally.

How did you first get interested in neuroscience?  
I took my first neuroscience class during my undergraduate junior year. I fell in love with the complexity of the human brain, from the variety of cellular types that coexist in the central nervous system to the formation and maintenance of synapses. I was fascinated by the seeming contradiction of a cell that is so important for making us who we are (neurons) to be formed during our early development and then be unable to be regenerated! Of course, the field has changed a lot since those days and now we know that the brain has a lot more plasticity than we originally thought, but that paradox sparked my interest and I have not stopped loving it since. I joined the instructor’s lab and worked on astrocyte communication, which initially got me interested in how astrocytes, neurons and microglia talk to each other within our brains. Particularly, how are these conversations altered in neurodegenerative disease? What happens between cells that leads to Alzheimer’s disease?

The brain is one of the most complex organs in our bodies, and yet there is still so much we do not know about it. Neuroscience is a fascinating field of research, and it integrates so many aspects of biomedical science including electrophysiology, cellular biology, physiology, cognitive neuroscience and psychology. I expect there are many great discoveries yet to be made in neuroscience, and it is my goal to contribute to our knowledge of the inner workings of the human brain in both health and disease.

What do you enjoy most about your current work?
The potential of the unknown. My current research is on the cutting edge of how we understand brain-to-rest of the body communication, and as such represents a largely unexplored field of investigation. It is akin to an astronaut first landing on the moon, or a deep-sea diver adventuring into the Mariana Trench for the first time. Nobody has been here before, and therefore everything we discover is new.

Hand in hand with this, is the ability to share this discovery with other people. Other scientists, my trainees, and the large public! Training junior investigators is a large part of what I do, and I am particularly interested in breaking down barriers to enhance diversity and improve the representation of minorities in science. As such, good mentoring of students and postdocs is a personal goal of mine, and I enjoy training and supporting upcoming generations of scientists very much.

The School of Medicine recently accepted you into its Duke LEADER program, which will begin this spring. How did you decide to join this program, and what do you hope to get out of it?
My goal has always been to lead an academic research program. I have always sought training on skills you do not necessarily learn during your PhD, include leadership styles, conflict management, and emotional awareness. As a faculty member here at Duke, it is my responsibility to lead a team of junior researchers, and the LEADER program was the perfect fit. Aimed at junior faculty just starting their research programs, this initiative offers insight into leadership and team building as well as direction on how to develop and manage a scientific laboratory or research program, how to improve productivity, and how to harness creativity and innovation. I learned about this program through the Office of Underrepresented Faculty Development, a great initiative here at Duke to inform incoming faculty of opportunities for training, funding and career development. Furthermore, I was supported by the chair of my department Dr. Rich O’Brien, who highly encourages junior faculty to apply for awards, fellowships and training opportunities like this one.

In addition to the workshops offered through the LEADER program, I am also very much looking forward to connecting with other faculty here on campus, as having a supportive network of peers at a similar stage in their careers is also an essential milestone towards academic success.

You also attended the 2017 Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, where your research was selected as a SfN “Hot Topic.” What was the subject of your research, and how did it advance our understanding of the field?
I presented my recent work outlining a potential role for muscle protein quality control on brain aging. This work is completely novel, suggesting that our brains do not exist (and age) in isolation, but rather as an integrated part of a physiological system. My research represents a cutting edge approach to our understanding of brain plasticity and aging, as it suggests that distant tissues such as skeletal muscle may be fundamentally influencing the rate at which our brain ages. As the largest international meeting in the field, SfN is a wonderful opportunity to discuss my work with the neuroscience community at large, and I would highly encourage trainees at every level to attend and present.

You’ll be participating in a Society for Neuroscience seminar where you’ll discuss how to give and assess academic chalk talks. How did your involvement in this seminar come about? What’s one piece of advice you can share for improving one’s communication in an academic setting?
This is a great example of the power of networking and serendipity: during the aforementioned 2017 Society for Neuroscience meeting, I attended a dinner hosted by one of my mentors. In the cab drive to the restaurant, I sat next to a senior faculty member from the University of Washington, whom I had never met before. As we began to chat, I mentioned I had hosted an academic workshop on How to Prepare Chalk Talks while still a postdoc at my previous institution came up, and she mentioned she was organizing a career development panel for the Society for Neuroscience on precisely this topic! Furthermore, she was looking for junior faculty who had recently gone through the academic job market, so we could speak directly to trainees on the process of creating and delivering a successful chalk talk. Voila!

Science communication is something I am quite passionate about, and it is something we scientists struggle with. Communicating our science to non-scientist audiences, or even to scientists from a different field, can be quite challenging, and is it a skill I strongly believe we should all cultivate. I highly encourage junior trainees to engage in science communication: give seminars (within and outside of your department), attend open-mike nights, and participate in science outreach! You will become a better scientist and a better communicator for it. This will also change the way you write grants: your reviewers will sometimes not be experts in your field, and being able to explain the complex biological processes we study in terms everybody can understand makes a reviewer much more likely to enjoy reading it!

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of Duke?
My biggest hobby is Latin dancing. I discovered salsa dancing as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and have been dancing ever since. I have been a member of several showcase and competitive performance teams, both in San Diego and in Chicago, and I was very excited to find that the Latin dance community is also quite active here in the Raleigh/Durham Area. The benefits of exercise are unquestionable, especially as it relates to cognitive function, and I can attest that I have truly become a better, happier scientist since I began my career as a dancer. It also taught how to manage my time well, as extended practice hours could impact my productivity if left unchecked. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is key for any scientist at all levels of their career, and finding a hobby you are passionate about and sometimes forces you to come out of the lab (or step away from your computer) will refresh you and allow you to come back to work rejuvenated and full of fresh new ideas.


Cortes (second from the left) poses with her dance team in the 2015 World Latin Dance Cup, where their team won 6th place in the Amateur Bachata category.

(this article originally appeared in January 2018 on the Duke Neurology Department’s website. Read that version here.)


Staff Spotlight: Michael Pham

Research Technician Michael Pham

Our first “Spotlight” interview of 2019 falls on Michael Pham, a research technician in the lab of Al La Spada, MD, PhD.  Pham talks to us about his work researching pathways and proteins related to ALS and autophagy, the spectacular chapel views and five-minute walking commute offered by his new MSRB3 lab facilities, and his enjoyment of piano composition and world dance while not at Duke.

What are your current responsibilities within the Department? What does a typical day for you look like?
I work as a Research Technician II alongside Dr. Somasish Ghosh where I research pathways and proteins related to either ALS or autophagy. In a typical day, I supervise my undergraduate students and run whatever experiment that needs to be completed for that day which could include western blots, cell culture, and transfections. I also work closely with the mice in the vivarium; I used to work for the colony manager back in San Diego so I have a decent amount of knowledge for every mouse line in the colony but nowadays, I’m primarily in charge of CRISPR edited mouse lines that we use for our projects.


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Young to deliver first DCNN seminar of 2020 on January 13

YoungThe University of Wisconsin’s Jessica Young, PhD, will deliver the first Duke Center for Neurodegeneration and Neurotherapeutics seminar at noon from 1-2 p.m. on Monday, January 13, in room 103 of the Bryan Research Building.  The title of her discussion will be “Sorting it out: Stem cell modeling to understand genetic risk and endocytic network dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease.”

Duke trio shares $1 million award to understand genetic roots of Parkinson’s disease

La Spada Calakos EorgluThree Duke researchers have received a grant of more than $1 million to study the role of astrocytes–common, star-shaped support cells within the brain–in the development of Parkinson’s disease. The award is part of more than $52 million in funding being given by the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative (CZI), which brings together experimental scientists from a variety of fields to better understand the root causes of neurodegenerative disorders.

Cagla Eroglu, PhD, (left in photo) from the Department of Cell Biology, will act as lead principal investigator, along with the Neurology Department’s Nicole Calakos, MD, PhD, (right in photo) the clinical principal investigator, and Al La Spada MD, PhD (center). Their research will examine how genes associated with Parkinson’s disease function in astrocytes, which control neuronal health throughout the brain. The team hopes to identify how genes associated with Parkinson’s are expressed by astrocytes, and how the resulting astrocyte dysfunction leads to neuron loss and neurodegeneration.

“This tremendously exciting project will greatly improve our understanding of the origins of Parkinson’s disease, and by extension, the entire family of neurodegenerative disease,” said Department Chair Richard O’Brien, MD, PhD. “I’m thrilled to see what these great scientists can accomplish as a team, thanks to the support of The Duke University School of Medicine, Duke University Health System and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative.”

Neurodegenerative disorders, including, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, affect millions of people worldwide. Parkinson’s disease, which affects about one million Americans, is characterized by progressive problems with movement–commonly tremors but also slowness, stiffness, and swaying. Like other neurodegenerative diseases, the causes of Parkinson’s are only partly understood, and there are still no effective therapies to cure, prevent, or slow the progression of the disease.

The CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network seeks to improve our treatment and understanding of neuodegeneration by launching a collaborative network that will bring together scientists, physicians, and engineers to focus on neurodegenerative diseases as a broad class of disorders, with shared features and potentially shared solutions. Challenge Network researchers will focus on understanding the fundamental biology of what causes these diseases and how they progress, with an aim toward developing new strategies for treatment and prevention.

“Despite tremendous investment and progress in understanding these diseases, there remains a surprising amount of very basic information about their biology that we don’t know,” said CZI Science Program Officer Katja Brose. “By supporting these interdisciplinary collaborations and generating shared tools, resources and platforms, we hope to inspire a new approach to tackling neurodegenerative disease — one that leverages the combined power of basic science and technology to accelerate progress towards clinical goals.”

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was launched in December 2015 by Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, and Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician and founder and CEO of The Primary School in East Palo Alto. Read more about it here.

Staff Spotlight: Pawel Switonski, PhD

Pawel Switonski, PhD

Pawel Switonski, PhD, became hooked on science as a high-school student, when he read how a 19th-century botanist used a prism, algae, and bacteria to discover the spectra of light used in photosynthesis. Now as part of the lab of Al La Spada, MD, PhD, Switonski is investigating the development and origins of neurodegenerative diseases. In this week’s Spotlight interview, he talks to us about the joys of seeing an experiment go right, the 700-year legacy of universities in his native Poland, and why we’re likely to find evidence of extraterrestrial life in the near future.

What are your current responsibilities within the La Spada lab? What does your typical day look like?As a postdoc in the La Spada team I am enjoying the happiest days of my scientific career, with a lot of independence in doing gratifying research but without the heavy burden of a  PI’s responsibilities. My scientific interest is focused on understanding the pathomechanisms of neurodegenerative disorders, including Parkinson’s disease and spinocerebellar ataxia type 7 (SCA7). Although we have been studying these devastating diseases for decades now, our knowledge is still not sufficient enough to provide a cure for patients. This aspect really motivates me to do my best at the lab bench.

My daily routine includes a bit of a time dedicated to cell culture work, microscopy, literature reading and a lot of pipetting. I also work with mice, so every now and then I take a refreshing 10-minute uphill walk to the vivarium where, with the enormous help of Jessica (our mouse colony manager), I perform experiments and maintain our SCA7 mouse lines.

How and when did you first get interested in biochemistry and molecular biology? How does your background in those areas inform your work to better understand neurodegeneration?

To explain that I need to go back to my school years. My parents were the first people who directed my interested towards biology. My mom is an anesthesiologist and she has always been incredibly dedicated to her patients and her work. Continuous conversation at the dinner table about pathophysiology, anatomy, medicine etc., had a large influence on my young brain.

When I was a high school sophomore I was reading a biology textbook by Claude A. Villee. The book described a wonderful experiment performed by Theodore Engelmann in the 19th century. Engelmann asked the question: which part of the visible spectrum is most effective for photosynthesis. He did not have sophisticated instruments that we have today, but he had a pretty good grasp on biochemistry, microbiology and physics. He designed his famous action spectrum experiment where he split visible light on the prism and illuminated a strand of elongated algae, exposing its different sections to different part of the spectrum. He knew that the byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen, and that there is a species of bacteria that actively follows oxygen. He measured the magnitude of bacteria clamping in the proximity of the algae strand, and therefore indirectly measured the most photosynthetically active sections illuminated by red and violet light. The moment when I read about this experiment was eye-opening to me. I saw something that really captivated me and I think eventually made me a scientist. I saw scientific creativity at its finest. Up until now the best science is made using unexpected creative solutions and it is what I enjoy the most about my work.

Choosing molecular biology as my major in college was the next consistent step to broaden my understanding of fundamental principles of cell biology. After college I joined the lab of professor Krzyzosiak in Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, Polish Academy of Sciences in Poznan, Poland. He was studying the biochemistry of RNA, particularly the structures of RNA strands composed of repeated trinucleotide elements. These tandemly repeated trinucleotides present in responsible genes cause numerous neurodegenerative disorders including Huntington disease and SCA7.

When I joined, the lab was gravitating from hardcore RNA biochemistry towards more biologically relevant areas and I was responsible for developing new mouse models of spinocerebellar ataxia type 3. We still have a lot to learn about neurodegeneration. But what we know for sure is that the cascades leading to neuronal death are initiated and propagated on the molecular level somewhere there, inside cells. My background in biochemistry and molecular biology help me plan experiments to dissect and investigate these molecular cascades.

You earned your master’s and doctoral degrees in Poznan, Poland before coming to the United States. How do the academic systems of those two countries compare? What do you miss most about Poland?

Poland has very strong academic traditions. Jagiellonian University in Krakow was founded in 1364 and is one of the oldest surviving universities in the world. Academic systems in both countries are fairly similar but also differ in some aspects. In both Poland and the US there are three levels of education – bachelor, master and PhD degrees. In both countries students receive their knowledge attending lectures and laboratory classes and struggle with finals at the end of semesters.

Differences? U.S. universities are ranked among the world’s best. Polish ones, not so much. On the other hand, there is no tuition in Poland. Education is free and the student debt is virtually nonexistent. Another substantial difference between the academic systems is that Polish academic staff is less mobile, compared to the US. People often get their degree, are appointed and stay at the same university for decades. But it is changing for better now, especially with the young generation. Thanks to many new programs sponsored, among others, by Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education young scientists have more opportunities to do their short-term or postdoc trainings in the foreign institutions. I personally benefit from such a fellowship called Mobility Plus.

What do I miss most about Poland? Family for sure. I left my identical twin brother there. It is also hard for my kids because they really miss their grandparents and cousins. But with modern communication technology I stopped measuring the distance between the US and Poland in the units of distance. Instead I measure it in the units of the time difference. We are only +6h from Poland now.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
As I mentioned before, an opportunity to be creative. And this sweet moment when your experiment actually worked and you would like to dance a little bit but other people are there, so you make sure no one is watching and you dance anyway.

In addition to biochemistry, you’re also interested in astronomy and NASA. How long have you had these interests, and what interests you the most about these fields?
My dad was nine when he was watching American astronauts walking on the moon and he was hooked. When I was growing up, he influenced me with his passion. I inherited it from him.

I enjoy this nerdy part of me. I like reading about the progress in the rocket technology or keeping track of space probes visiting other worlds. But what really fascinates me is the planetary science and the prospect of finding extraterrestrial life. We live in special times. I strongly believe that in the next 15-25 years we will discover life in our solar system. Maybe on Mars (we are sending a rover there in 2020 to look for Martian life), maybe on Europa or Enceladus. And I am not talking about alien sentient life-form. It is going to be cellular life, or something similar. But such a discovery would be, in my opinion, the greatest discovery ever made by mankind. So many question to ask and answer. Extra-terra incognita. I am looking forward

to it.

Switonski, his wife Dorota, daughter Basia, and son Kostek at enjoying a weekend in Wrightsville Beach just after they first moved to North Carolina.