Meet our new Senior Scientist

Posted by Amanda Zimmerman in Research News on January 14, 2020 # Research

Amanda Zimmerman A few days ago, I officially joined the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation as a Senior Scientist. When I first heard what Ethan and the rest of the team at Reeve were looking to do, i.e. scout out and support potential SCI therapeutics to give them the best chance at what Christopher Reeve wanted, to get people out of their chairs for good, I was excited. Now, this will definitely be challenging work, as each SCI individual has his/her own circumstances and issues, and any cure will surely be a combination of approaches. Yet, this opportunity was too good to miss.

First, a bit of background on me and why this role is such a great fit. I received my Ph.D. in Bioengineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and did my graduate research in the laboratory of Shawn Hochman at Emory. As part of my Ph.D. program, I first did laboratory rotations before choosing a lab, and one of my first was at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a rehab center with several clinical research trials and a sizeable SCI population. It was there that I learned about the importance of communication with and understanding of the actual people dealing with any disorder. Ask most people you meet on the street, or even most spinal cord researchers, what kind of research patients would prioritize, and you’ll largely get one answer: locomotion, or walking again. Yet, talk to most patients and family members of those living with SCI, and you realize that for a majority of those with chronic injuries, what’s most important to their quality of life are functions related to the autonomic nervous system: blood pressure regulation, bowl & bladder function, sexual function, and even breathing for high cervical injuries (e.g. see the NASCIC report for 2020). Having learned this, when I joined the Hochman lab, I shifted my focus from the neurons that generate locomotor patterns to those that control the autonomic nervous system, and started to explore dysfunction in SCI. Unfortunately, at the time, I was one of only a handful of basic researchers studying spinal cord function (and dysfunction) of this critical part of the nervous system.

When I finished my graduate studies, I started a postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of David Ginty, now at Harvard Medical School. Still a spinal cord physiologist at heart, I shifted my focus to the spinal cord’s control of sensation, picking up a bit of molecular biology and genetics along the way. In the past 10 years, the field of neuroscience has changed dramatically with the ability to visualize and finely control the activity of neurons, which has allowed us much greater insight into how complex systems function. While quite intellectually stimulating, over the past few years I have greatly missed working closer to translational research, and actually interacting with the patient populations we scientists aim to help. I’ve spent the last year and a half discovering the biotech space in Boston, including a short fellowship with the biotech venture capital company Flagship Pioneering, and realized just how many steps are needed to take an interesting idea in academia and bring it to a useful (and FDA approved) therapeutic. Even with a great idea, a new startup needs the knowledge and support of how to navigate entirely new obstacles. When I heard what the Reeve Foundation was looking to do, to help researchers with promising therapeutics navigate novel terrain, both financially and otherwise, I was immediately intrigued. It’s the early stages of new startups that need the most support, and can make or break great ideas.. And in the years since I last did SCI research myself, some ideas that seemed futuristic then are now showing really promising early stage results..

This week, I arrived at Reeve HQ for my first on-site visit. I like the title Senior Scientist, as I enjoy getting under the hood of promising research, yet I don’t just intend to be a resource for researchers. I’d love to connect on Twitter at @adnamaleah or by email at [email protected]. We have ambitious goals for 2020 and beyond, but we need to engage people at every level, from researchers, rehab specialists, and the entire SCI community.