While some high school students take the summer off from learning, Farmington Hills, Mich., teenager Nadir Alam spent the last two summer breaks working as a lab technician and research assistant at the Wayne State University School of Medicine.
The 17-year-old senior at Cranbrook Upper School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., worked on Parkinson’s disease research in the lab of Research Assistant Professor of Pharmacology Alyson Sujkowski, Ph.D.
“The techniques that I use are really friendly to new researchers, and I think that it’s a great setup to see science in real life,” Dr. Sujkowski said. “Since we work with fruit flies, students are often able to see whether exercise helps their movement and their lifespan within a couple of months. We can add in the molecular work later as they get more comfortable. Nadir was dedicated right from the start. He volunteered pretty much full time for his entire summer break, and he was really good at looking up articles and finding information out for himself, something that you don’t often see in brand new students. Nadir picked up the techniques really rapidly, so I was able to bring him into a few more projects.”
Dr. Sujkowski’s work focuses on dissecting the mechanisms underlying exercise adaptations to better understand its therapeutic potential, and identify exercise mimetics that may be able to produce the healthful effects of exercise in individuals unable to perform a traditional training program.
“Recently, we’re focusing on disease-specific exercise timing and programming for maximum therapeutic benefit, the intra- and trans-generational molecular mechanisms activated by exercise that determine long-term health in individuals and their descendants, and how we may safely provide exercise-like benefits to aging populations without any negative effects. As new faculty, I’m actively looking for other students who are interested in the lab,” she said.
Alam was especially interested in joining Dr. Sujkowski’s lab because of her research focus.
“The year before I joined the lab, I partook in a summer research program at the University of Michigan, which exposed me to neuroscience and allowed me to gain knowledge about topics relevant to the lab’s research,” he said. “I lost my grandfather to Parkinson’s disease that same year and wanted to find a way to get involved in the efforts to find possible cures. A couple of kids at my school had participated in college research labs and advised me to send cold emails to labs that interested me. This is what I ended up doing, and I was taken in by my current lab in the summer of 2022 and have been with them since.”
Alam was the first person in the Sujkowski lab to identify that exercise in parents benefits both mobility and lifespan in their descendants, even those who don’t exercise. He also helped with two papers in which they established new Drosophila models of Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 17 and Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 7.
“Just like humans, flies with neurodegenerative disease have shorter lives than normal wild-type flies, and usually have defects in their mobility that get worse as the flies age,” Dr. Sujkowski said. “He found that some programs helped, while some programs made the disease progress more quickly. These data will have important implications for humans, as we might be able to identify what molecular players shared between flies and humans are responsible for these positive or negative effects. In the future we might be able to help design personalized medicine based on an individual’s disease status and genetic background.”
The work was so meaningful, Alam was inspired to start his own nonprofit, which encourages exercise among youth to protect both their brains and the rest of their bodies from disease.
Run 4 Your Mind teaches the importance of exercise to children and exposes them to research and ways they can get involved in research, he said. “The main project that I have organized through the non-profit is distributing flyers to pediatricians’ offices in the area to spread the message.”
Learn more at www.run4yourmind.org.
Alam plans to major in biology at college, likely on a pre-medicine track.
“The hands-on lab experience that I gained during my time at Wayne State has helped me prepare very well for college, where I hope to continue research. Already having two summers of research under my belt before starting college will set me apart from other students looking for the same opportunities, and hopefully allow me to find a lab earlier and more easily,” he said. “My experience has also allowed me to explore my interests more, so I will know which labs fit my goals more closely. I hope to join another Drosophila (fruit-fly) lab, hopefully one that studies neurodegeneration, just like my current lab at Wayne State.”
Alam’s success has paved the way for more students to earn summer research experience in the Department of Pharmacology, including three other students recruited to work with Dr. Sujkowski on a new automated climbing apparatus that will track climbing velocity in real time.
“They are hoping to work with their robotics club during the year, and then come during the summer to test it. I hope that this is the beginning of a really positive relationship where young people can get a feel for research,” Dr. Sujkowski said.
Alam is founder and president of his school’s 150-member research club, and helps younger students look for research opportunities. He represented his high school at the Science and Engineering Fair of Metropolitan Detroit, winning first place for his presentation on the Parkinson’s disease project he worked on in Dr. Sujkowski’s lab.
“I am especially grateful for the generosity of Dr. Sujkowski and Dr. Todi in welcoming me to the lab and even bringing me back as a staff member at the School of Medicine after my first summer. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to learn from,” Alam said.
To learn more about the Sujkowski lab, visit https://pharmacology.med.wayne.edu/profile/fs1484