Behind the Bench: One Student’s Mission to Fight Ataxia

Jackie Ward is a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and former CIRM trainee. At UCSD uses stem cells as a model to study rare neurodegenerative diseases in the lab of Albert La Spada.

My work as a PhD student focuses on a rare form of inherited neurodegeneration called spinocerebellar ataxia. Previous to grad school, I can’t remember if I’d ever heard the word “ataxia” before. It’s an affliction that you don’t come across often, so even those of us who study this disease rarely encounter anyone who has it.

This all changed when I had the opportunity to attend the annual meeting of the National Ataxia Foundation. This conference is quite unique in that it combines a gathering for patients with a science conference for ataxia investigators. There is a dedicated poster session specifically for patients to interact one-on-one with the scientists actually doing the work, as well as small group meetings for patients to ask questions of the scientists and clinicians in attendance.

My thesis project focuses on generating a disease-in-a-dish model of spinocerebellar ataxia. To do this, I have reprogrammed skin cells obtained from ataxic individuals into pluripotent stem cells. We are now trying to learn more about the disease by morphing these stem cells into the type of cells that are sick and dying in ataxia. Inherently, my work relies on consent, information, and tissue donations from patients. I was looking forward to interacting with the people who make work like mine possible, but I was not expecting an entirely different outlook on my own work.

The patients and families with whom I interacted were so interested and responsive and eager to hear about my research. After spending many, many hours in lab focusing on the technical details and minutiae of daily experiments, it was eye opening to take a step back and meet the people who I am actually doing this research for. It is so easy to get caught up in classes and committee meetings and the next set of deadlines, that sometimes I forget about the big picture.

It was important to see that behind my work are real people with faces and names and senses of humor and affinities for the same TV shows as me. It’s not just coded cell lines and tubes of DNA. I feel a renewed interest and perspective in the work I’m doing. I encourage any stem cell researcher to jump at the opportunity to interact with the individuals who will ultimately be affected by your work. It is not just these patients’ consent and tissue samples I am grateful for now, but also a new excitement in my own research.

Jackie Ward

Want to hear more from Jackie? Check out her CIRM Stem Cell Science Pitch.

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