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Student Q&A: Lauren Rylaarsdam, NUIN

Lauren Rylaarsdam

Lauren Rylaarsdam, student in the Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience (NUIN) program, studies rare genetic neurodevelopmental disorders in the laboratory of Alicia Guemez Gamboa, PhD, assistant professor of Neuroscience. Read a Q&A with Rylaarsdam below.  

Where is your hometown?

I grew up in Stillwater, Minn., which is about 30 minutes from the Twin Cities.

What are your research interests?

I am fascinated by human genetics and am interested in studying the genetic etiologies of neurodevelopmental disorders. Determining what causes patient symptoms is a very critical step in therapy development.

What exciting projects are you working on?

My thesis research is focused on determining the disease mechanisms of PACS1 syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder caused by a single recurrent variant in a gene called PACS1. The goal is to figure out how this variant is causing neurological symptoms, such as intellectual disability and epilepsy, and to identify therapeutic targets. To do this I culture cells from patients and differentiate them to neurons. Then I use various techniques like single-cell RNA sequencing to figure out what goes wrong in PACS1 syndrome cells as the neural tissue develops.

What attracted you to your program?

I was drawn to the depth and variety of research at NUIN. With roughly 140 research faculty across 20 departments, the opportunities for graduate students are quite diverse. I was impressed by the common resources such as the Center for Advanced Microscopy which make state-of-the-art equipment available to smaller labs. Chicago also seemed like an exciting change from the town I grew up in.  It has been a great place to live these last five years — there are tons of activities, but at the same time it doesn’t feel overwhelming.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

My best experience here has been learning R and Unix programming, which really expanded the types of questions I was able to ask in my research. My background is primarily molecular, but when I submitted my first sample for single-cell RNA sequencing to the NUSeq core, I felt like I might be missing out if I couldn't analyze the data myself. I slowly acquired the necessary foundational computational skills through Research Computing Services, online resources and a class at Cold Spring Harbor. It was very much worth it and my bioinformatics analysis has yielded key insights into my research I would not have had otherwise. Throughout this process I became fascinated with the power of computational approaches and this has been formative in determining the next steps of my career.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

I have had very positive interactions with the faculty at Northwestern. My mentor, Alicia Guemez Gamboa, is a huge reason for my constructive experience. I feel very fortunate to be in her lab. She always thinks of others and is very invested in my development both as a person and as a scientist. She is highly collaborative and this has allowed me to learn new techniques and perform experiments I would not have been able to do otherwise. I have especially appreciated partnerships with the labs of Gemma Carvill, Evangelos Kiskinis, and Peter Penzes

What do you do in your free time?

I am an avid runner — I ran competitively in college and am now part of the Fleet Feet racing team here in Chicago. I like outdoor activities in general. I also love to draw and have a little art business on the side. The artist in me is very attracted to the beauty and complexity of neurons in the brain. 

What are your plans for after graduation?

I plan to pursue a postdoctoral position to study the genetic etiology of neurodevelopmental disorders. I particularly want to strengthen my computational skills and complement resulting findings with molecular approaches.