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Bryan Abessi ’07 (Franklin Lakes, N.J.) is studying the effects environmental variables have on Parkinson’s disease. He is experimenting with fruit flies engineered to develop the disease.

Abessi is working with Elaine Reynolds, associate professor of biology and chair of neuroscience, through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

“The current experiment I am doing is a continuation of [research conducted by] Lafayette graduate Susan Bothwell [’05],” says Abessi, a biology major. “She, along with Dr. Reynolds, began researching Parkinson’s disease in fruit flies by adding the human gene alpha-synuclein. A trademark phenotype of the disease is the destruction of dopaminergic neurons, and thus a depletion of dopamine in the substantia nigra of the fly brain. This leads to symptoms of the disease.”

Abessi also will study two drugs used to treat the debilitating neurological disease in humans.

“He has also designed an experiment to see if two drugs used to treat the disease in humans – levodopa and ibuprofen – can decrease the symptoms in the fly model,” says Reynolds. “For these experiments, Bryan will look at how long the flies live and how well they can move with age, as well as examine their dopaminergic cells.”

The researchers’ goal is to provide information on factors that influence the disease in humans.

“This project is so interesting because there is little known about this lethal neurodegenerative disease, and there are many questions yet to be answered on how it causes death of the dopaminergic neurons in the brain,” Abessi says. “The fact that we can experiment with flies is incredible because the results have the potential to impact future experiments with humans with Parkinson’s disease.”

Reynolds is confident in Abessi’s research and lab capabilities.

“Bryan is intelligent, curious, and exceptionally comfortable working independently in the lab,” she says. “He has been able to come into the lab this summer and apply his knowledge from his course work to the specific problem we are studying.”

Abessi believes Reynolds is an exceptional mentor who has helped him handle the research’s complex experiments.

“[Reynolds] is incredibly smart and is willing to make sure her students understand everything,” he says. “She has been working with these flies for such a long time and is fluent in this field. I have learned so much under her supervision.”

Reynolds has been working with fruit flies for about 20 years, aiming to discover basics that will give people who work with higher organisms new research ideas. She has mentored more than 30 students in fruit fly research, including a dozen students who have coauthored papers that have been published or accepted for publication in scientific journals. She also has partnered with Lafayette students on more than 20 published abstracts and papers presented at conferences such as the Meeting on Neurobiology of Drosophila, Annual Meeting of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science, and National Conference on Undergraduate Research. She has received several National Science Foundation grants, including a $168,779 grant for her work with fruit flies in 2003 and has published her own findings in scientific journals. She is a past recipient of Lafayette’s Delta Upsilon Distinguished Mentoring and Teaching Award.

Abessi is a graduate of Indian Hills High School.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty students were accepted to present their research at this year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News, Environmental Science, Environmental Studies