Anastasia Hanifin ’23
We are officially five days away from the Walk!
These weeks are devoted to making sure the event runs smoothly. Volunteers will be contacted with instructions for their assignments, we requested petty cash this afternoon, goody bag stuffing is arranged for later this week, and we gathered various items for the day of the event: banners, signs, shirts, hats, candy, face painting supplies, temporary tattoos, etc. There is so much to do, and I am so thankful that Christina is in the office all the time to take care of things I can’t!
Christina and I are going to arrive at Rentschler Field at 7 AM on Sunday (that will be a fun day-after-Halloween!) and the rest of the staff will arrive at 8. I still have to put together a contact list for exhibitors and others providing services or donating food at the event, so I have quite a busy day on Thursday as well. The rest of the day on Thursday, we will pack up the supplies and make sure things are in order for Sunday.
I also just learned that we are probably going to miss out on around 100 registrants this year due to some large teams from last year that are not going to be present this weekend. That’s a little disappointing, but we are all set on the financial side of things, so I’m sure it will be a great event nonetheless!
This past week was spent largely recruiting past teams of more than 10 people. Looking up past participants was actually a little difficult, because the goal was to get in contact with the team captain (so we had to find that person in the midst of all the other information).
I also put in the order for the sponsor board and the goody bags, so it took some time to find high-resolution images to send to both print companies. I learned that EPS files are high-resolution, and many other common file types are not (learned this the hard way!).
Lastly, I sent out the final details for exhibitors and volunteers. Organizing the volunteers was bigger project than I thought because there continue to be cancellations, and others have not expressed a need for a certain assignment. We also need to train our volunteers, so I created a schedule for their arrival on the day of the event that I’ll be able to work from. I’m planning to add phone numbers for vendors and people crucial to the event.
This past week at BIAC was a whirlwind! And it was mostly due to needing to order shirts.
This year’s shirts will be “daisy,” “gold,” and purple (for volunteers). Of course, it took Julie and I quite some time to decide on colors, and then I had to design a structure for the sponsors’ logos that were to go on the backs of the shirts. I got some ad lib design experience, so that was a bonus 🙂
Then, we had many people register right before the October 9th shirt deadline. So, recalculating the number of shirts we could guarantee was also a hassle. The good thing is we’re over 120 online registrants. Hopefully that’s due to some of my Facebook promotion posts (as well as forcing the BIAC board members to register haha).
Last week, Julie, Christina and I also visited Rentschler Field for a preliminary walk-through. I met Ben Richards, the new contact person for our event. We got along well; more and more I am realizing that it’s about who you know and forming solid business relationships with people.
This week, I’ll focus on putting together a volunteer check-in table, a list of things to bring to Rentschler on the day of the Walk, and other miscellaneous preparations for right before the event.
This blog post will be relatively short because I have finished up my September tasks (right on time!) and will move on to October tasks this week.
This week, I met Christina, BIAC’s new Development Director. As I mentioned in the recent lab meeting, she and I are going to work really well as a team. She also has all of the knowledge and experience that I don’t have with things like corporate sponsorships. I’m hoping that she’ll give me a few pointers on how to ask for money from places like Shoprite.
I now have a full list of volunteers! The only people I have not been able to reach at all this year are the fraternity at the University of Hartford. I’m sure I can reach out to a greek life house at Trinity that would love to help out to fulfill community service hours, though.
On that note, I’m sure I will have more questions or concerns next week after starting my October timeline!
With Trinity College currently celebrating 25 years of Neuroscience, there is no better time for us to have a neuroscience-focused school president. President Berger-Sweeney’s talk last Thursday revolved around the past 15 years of her research, during which she studied autism spectrum disorders in mice. When she first began her studies, rats were the more commonly used models, but she switched her focus to better understand the correlation of mice and human genomes. In order to be able to model a human disorder in an animal like a mouse one must tackle some if not all of the following characteristics and ensure that there is overlap: symptoms, genetics, chemical changes, brain anatomy, among others. Of course, mice and humans are anatomically and physiologically difference. For example, while mice don’t speak in the way that humans do, they make ultrasonic vocalizations, which make them similar enough.
The next question that come up after finding a suitable model is finding a way to properly model the disease in question. President Berger-Sweeney studied pervasive developmental disorders, which interrupt normal neural in childhood and require early treatment, particularly an autism spectrum disorder known as Rett syndrome. Autism, by definition, is a genetically and epigenetically influenced disorder that reduces social interaction, communication, and joint attention. Furthermore, in the United States, 1in 110 children are affected, it with four times as many being male. (Schavietz and Berger-Sweeney, 2012). Rett syndrome, more specifically, is a regressively developmental disorder, which mostly affects 1/2000 live births, particularly girls, since boys rarely survive to birth (Katz et al., 2012). The most common symptoms are difficulty with communication and hand wringing/flapping. These girls appear healthy at birth but development slows down at 6-18 months, followed by rapid regression in years 1 to 3, when they exhibit stunted head and physical growth, seizures, and more autistic characteristics. Years 5 to 10 are a period of pseudo-stabilization, while adulthood is tinged with a regression into scoliosis. Few girls survive past age 30, a worrisome trend.
Rett syndrome’s “cause” has been attributed to a transcriptional repressor, methyl-CpG-binding protein 2 (Mecp2), which usually blocks the transmission of the gene (Katz et al., 2012). Loss of this repressor means a loss of control over the gene that causes the condition. In 95% of Rett syndrome cases, this loss is caused by a spontaneous mutation on an X chromosome. Unfortunately, at this point in time, Rett syndrome is currently not entirely treatable. However, some nutritional supplements and drugs like choline, Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ACL) and Galantamine butyl-carbamite have allowed for some progression and improvements (Katz et al., 2012). The next step for this research would be to continue experimentation in hopes of finding the ultimate cure.
Unfortunately, with autism affecting 1 girl for every 4 boys (Schavietz and Berger-Sweeney, 2012) and more specifically, Rett Syndrome affecting only 1 in 10,000 girls, (Katz et al., 2012), they are often misdiagnosed, leading to preventable progression (Willingham, 2015). Not to mention, of course, the stigma associated with neurological conditions is amplified in autism with its extremely visible symptoms, worsened by the fact that Rett syndrome affects young girls who are thus bullied and often turn to eating disorders and depression (Willingham, 2015). Talks like the one President Berger-Sweeney presented are important in educating the public and keeping people aware of conditions which plague such helpless children. I know that I, for one, had absolutely no knowledge of Rett Syndrome’s existence before her talk.
The 15+ years of research presented by President Berger-Sweeney on her work with Rett’s syndrome was both informative and offered insight into current areas of research. During her talk the President focused on the general information about the disease, what it is and how it affects people, as well as more specific information about what the results with a mouse model reported. The disease is classified as an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It affects young children, mostly girls, and manifests itself at around 12-18 months. The mutations occur in the MeCP2 gene, a protein that regulates the transcription of genes. The disorder differentiates itself from other neurodegenerative diseases due to what is known as the “plateau stage”, in which the regression of skills halts and there is no further regression. Later in life however, the affected individuals may re-enter a stage of motor decline later in life and develop parkinsonism-like symptoms. Due to this regression the occurs later in life the average age of a person affected with Rett’s syndrome is around 30 years-old.
President Berger-Sweeney’s talk was a great opportunity to get to know her as a researcher and for the rest of the Trinity community to see her as a neuroscientist. Moreover, it was a nice opportunity to learn about a disorder that is not often mentioned in conversation with the more notable Autism Spectrum Disorders. Ultimately, I was able to learn more about our wildly over-accomplished President, her research related passions, and what it truly means to love the work and research that you do.
In her lecture entitled Of Mice and Men and Girls and Autism, President and
Neuroscience Researcher Joanne Berger-Sweeney spoke of her work looking at neurological
diseases in mice. When using a mouse as a model for a human disorder, she looks for four major
similarities: a mouse that models the symptoms, genetics, chemical changes and brain anatomy
of the human. Specifically, President Berger-Sweeney has studied Rett Syndrome, an autism
spectrum disorder that affects mostly females. Rett Syndrome, a regressive developmental
disorder, causes difficulties in communication and repeated hand-flapping motions. Often, the
Rett Syndrome girls only live until 30 years of age or so. One of the hardest parts about this
disorder is that until approximately 6-18 months, the girls seem neuro-typical until they start to
regress. During a period of rapid regression which occurs between 1-3 years, the girls present as
autistic, and develop habits such as the hand flapping motion. In a pseudo-stabilization period,
the autistic symptoms regress and respiratory problems begin. It’s these respiratory problems that
only allow the girls to live until 30 years.
Although I knew about this syndrome before her lecture, there was a specific detail that
President Berger-Sweeney mentioned that I was unaware of. Rett Syndrome is a syndrome where
the regulation of genes has been lost. This occurs when there’s a problem with a transcriptional
repressor known as Mecp2. Normally, Mecp2 blocks gene transcription. However in this
syndrome, it itself is inhibited so that it can no longer inhibit gene transcription. This causes the
genes to not be regulated enough. Mecp2 is located on the x-chromosome, and is associated with
95% of Rett Syndrome cases. Although this is a very high percentage, it was not enough for
President Berger-Sweeney, so her research continues.
One experiment that President Berger-Sweeney has run on her mice is called the Social
Approach experiment. In this experiment, she monitored how much time mice that modeled a
Rett syndrome like disease chose to spend alone verse with other mice. She hypothesized that
they would be more eager to spend time alone. However, the data she collected did not support
this. Instead, she found that mice spent most of their time with the other mouse (which was in a
cage). When she went to talk to the parents of girls with Rett Syndrome, they stated that the girls
can actually be very sociable. This portrays one of the most important parts about doing research:
you have to take the data as it comes. Although this data initially did not support President
Berger-Sweeney’s research, she could not alter it in any way to support her study. Instead, she
went back to her research and has been conducting more tests in order to find a cure for this
Leading by example sets a precedent for what is expected, and promotes solidarity by showing that even the person in charge is conducting themselves by that standard. However, in today’s world it is all too common for a person in a position of leadership to take a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality. While this mentality may make sense in some unique instances, it is often better for leaders to lead by example. A leader who sets and meets their own standards effectively establishes what is expected, and demonstrates that the person with the greatest responsibility is capable of meeting these expectations. Joanne Berger-Sweeney’s talk last week at the Trinity College Common Hour exemplified what it means to be a person who leads by example.
One of the goals of any academic institution is to further people’s understanding of various subjects. In her talk last week, Berger-Sweeney showed how she expanded our understanding of autism before she ever stepped into her current administrative role. Berger-Sweeney’s contribution was to the scientific community’s understanding of Rett syndrome, a regressive form of autism spectrum disorder, which only affects girls. When listening to Berger-Sweeney talk, her passion for the research and its implications was unmistakable. The president of Trinity College’s passion is one such example of a quality that she is looking for out of the college’s community, that she clearly embodies herself.
One other quality which Berger-Sweeney exemplified during her brief talk was logic, which she exemplified in several ways. From her informed selection of what animal model to use, to her attempts to treat Rett syndrome Berger-Sweeney always showcased critical thinking of a holistic nature. Young scientists at the school can learn a lot from her implementation of the scientific method. She effectively determined a problem, researched it, experimented, and then tested possible solutions.
More examples of good leadership can be found, buried with in Berger-Sweeney’s talk and her history. She embedded advice for her young listeners into her talk, turned down cash incentives that introduced bias to her research, and demonstrated dedication to a task. While her work may be just a small addition to our understanding of autism, her exemplary behavior is a huge addition to her status as a leader.
Since becoming president of Trinity College last fall, I’ve heard President Berger-Sweeney speak on many occasions. I was fortunate enough to witness her eloquent speech at her inauguration, as well as at the most recent Trinity College graduation. I’ve overheard her speaking to classmates, and I’ve even had the pleasure of exchanging words with her while out on a morning walk with her dog. However, after hearing President Berger Sweeney’s scientific talk, it was very clear to me that she is most in her element when talking about her research. In a clear and passionate manner, President Berger-Sweeney shared details with those of us present at her opening talk for the 25 years of neuroscience program regarding her work with pervasive neurological disorder, specifically Rett syndrome.
Although it was evident that President Berger-Sweeney wanted her presentation to be comprehensible to all students, I found that my fellow neuroscience majors and I were particularly well equipped to understand the many facets of her research. In addition, as a student involved with behavior neuroscience research lab with autistic mouse models, I feel I had a unique appreciation for President Berger-Sweeney’s work.
To begin, President Berger-Sweeney spoke briefly about her choice to work with mouse models instead of rats due to the amount of information know about the mouse genome. President Berger-Sweeney then delved deeper into her interest with Rett Syndrome, a regressive developmental disorder that is associated with mutations in the gene encoding MeCP2, a transcriptional repressor. President Berger-Sweeney played a short video of a young female named Esme, who represented one of the many girls with Rett syndrome. Esme had difficult with commination, characteristic had flapping gestures, irregular breathing, and was predicted to develop more of the typical complications such as loss of mobility, seizures, and scoliosis.
It was then that President Berger-Sweeney began to talk more thoroughly about the many ways she sought to find an effective treatment for Rett Syndrome. An integral finding for her research team was the role of the cholinergic system and it’s relation to reducing the negative effectives of MeCP2 mutation. Her first experiments involved the delivery of choline into her pregnant mouse models via drinking water. Her research team then assessed the development and behavior of the offspring of the pregnant models. Although such results suggested that the choline helped with increased motor coordination, neuronal health, and brain volume, there was no significant indication that cognitive development of the models were improved. Such results lead to her next experiment in which a precursor of acetylcholine, ALC, was injected into the mice. After examining cells in the dendate gyrus, it was found that ALC was in fact improving the neuronal morphology in her mouse models by increasing dendritic branching and overall neuron density. Essentially, the general health, motor function, and cognitive development were improved just as her team had hoped, but only up to post-natal day 30. At this point, a general decline of such functions was found.
After discussing some other directions for her research, as she still plans of working to find a treatment for Rett Syndrome, President Berger-Sweeney took time to acknowledge all the students that played a role in her research journey. She specifically mentioned one of her female students who struggled after graduating from Tufts with balancing her passion for scientific research and her family life. President Berger-Sweeney mention to her audience, most directly to the females in the room, that a career in science is not an easy feat, but that with genuine intellectual curiosity, dedication, and love of your work it is possible to successfully balance it all.
Ultimately, I left President Berger Sweeney’s talk with a clear picture of her passion for neuroscience, for research, and for improving the quality of life for individuals with Rhett’s syndrome. It is rare that scientific talk is both intellectually stimulating and poignant, yet I feel President Berger Sweeney hit this sweet spot. Overall, I felt the presentation “Of Mice and Men and Girls and Autism: Insights from 15 years of studying the neurobiology of mouse models of autism spectrum disorders,” was a perfect way to kick start 25 Years of Neuroscience at Trinity College.