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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Maria Nguyen, Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program

Maria Nguyen

Where is your hometown?

I was born and raised in the beautiful Pacific Northwest city of Portland, Oregon, also known as the City of Roses.

What are your research interests?

Being involved in scientific research early on in college really opened my eyes to the neurological disease plaguing my own family. Because of this, I am fascinated with the genetic study of diseases and the idea that one single DNA change can drastically affect someone's life. I am also intrigued by how the position of the DNA change can determine what disease one will get, whether that disease will happen early on or late in life or whether one will be protected against certain diseases in the future. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in the laboratory of Dr. Krainc, where I have been able to study the genetics of Parkinson's disease for the past five years.

What exciting projects are you working on?

I have several projects currently keeping me busy. The first is my main thesis project, which focuses on the consequences of synaptic dysfunction in Parkinson's disease (PD). Previously, both mitochondrial and lysosomal dysfunction had been implicated in disease pathogenesis, but recent genetic discoveries are hinting towards the importance of synaptic dysfunction in PD. My work shows how two PD genes, LRRK2 and auxilin, associate with one another to mediate synaptic dysfunction in disease. The field has been trying to figure out an answer to the million-dollar question, "Why do dopaminergic neurons degenerate in Parkinson's disease?” While there is no one direct answer, I think that every day we are getting closer to solving this complex question, and it has been a pleasure to take part in this process. 

My second project is giving me a small taste of what industry will be like. Our lab has identified an important druggable target for the treatment of PD, and I am now working closely with a medicinal chemist to generate compounds that I can then test in PD-affected human-derived neurons. This experience has taught me how to design and carry out experiments that give robust phenotypes and reproducible data. This skill and rigor will definitely be useful to me as I continue on in my scientific career. 

What attracted you to the PhD program? 

When I was initially applying for PhD programs I didn't know where I wanted to end up, let alone what disease I wanted to study. All I was sure of was that I wanted to live in a big city and to research the brain. Those two requirements attracted me to the Windy City and to NUIN. After my interview weekend, I felt that the NUIN family really cared about me as an individual and my personal motivations for pursuing neuroscience research. To them, I wasn't just another qualified applicant on paper but one that could really fit into the community here. Because of this experience, I ultimately decided to call Chicago home.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

The best experience has just been the joy of connecting with so many talented individuals from different backgrounds and cultures. These conversations have all helped me grow both personally and professionally. 

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

I would describe the faculty as one big family. Everyone plays an important role and each individual has their own unique set of experiences that they can bring to the table. Because of this, I think the department runs quite smoothly, and I am always confident that someone is there and willing to help me with my needs. 

What do you do in your free time?

In my free time, I enjoy talking to my lab members about anything but science. It sounds trivial but when you're constantly thinking about science, these conversations are like a breath of fresh air. In addition, I also like to read, cook and workout by myself, as well as pamper myself with at home spa treatments. I find that time spent alone can be both relaxing and rejuvenating. 

Chicago is also a great city that is known for its music, food, art and history. In my free time, I find myself being a tour guide for friends and family who visit. Even after five years of living in the city, I can still count on Chi-town to give me new and memorable experiences. 

What are your plans for after graduation?

I guess my short-term plans would be to secure a job and move to the East Coast. I would like to work in industry and build my business experience there. I am really interested in how bench science can be translated into life-saving treatments for patients. In order to do this, I believe that the best environment would be to work and network among biotech individuals who have the same mission in mind. 

If my plans don't work out, I hope to just be happy and thankful at whatever point I am in life. 

Connect with Maria on LinkedIn.