Senior thesis: Altering the course
Princeton NJ -- Like many graduating seniors, Scott Vafai has turned in his senior thesis with the conviction that it has altered the course of his life.
In his case, however, Vafai can be fairly sure that his work on the biology of Alzheimer's disease also has changed the direction of his adviser's research and may well initiate an important avenue of medical research.
If proven correct, the idea could have important implications for the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer's, said Stock. Vafai's work already has begun to attract attention.
"It's a nice hypothesis because it's testable," said Peter Davies, a leading Alzheimer's researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "It's logical, it's plausible and it's clever."
"Whether it's right or wrong is another issue, but that really doesn't matter as much as the fact that we can investigate the connections," added Davies, who said he already is thinking about how to set up the experiments.
For Stock's part, he has become so intrigued by the ideas Vafai developed that he plans to make them a major new direction in his lab.
"It's the best thesis I have encountered in 20 years of teaching at Princeton," said Stock.
Vafai's project reflects not only intellect and dedication, but also an uncommon ability to interact with other scientists and benefit from their input, said Stock. Vafai spoke with top Alzheimer's researchers as he interviewed for graduate programs. "When he goes on these interviews, he's like a postdoc," said Stock. "He's talking science with these guys."
"He's a very, very smart young man, yet he's very modest," said Richard Hanson, a visiting professor in molecular biology whose research overlaps Vafai's. "He just has very fine qualities. You know he's going to go places."
Vafai, whose interest in research began in high school, started working in Stock's lab freshman year. He conducted basic research in yeast, co-writing a paper with Stock and others his sophomore year. In Vafai's junior year, Stock urged him to think about whether their research might offer a connection between homocysteine, which already is linked to heart disease, and neurological disease.
Combing the scientific literature, Vafai used his earlier paper and many others to build a series of links showing how high levels of homocysteine could promote the formation of overgrown protein tangles in brain cells, which is one characteristic of Alzheimer's.
"It was a great learning experience in doing really solid scientific writing," Vafai said. "My whole room was covered in scientific papers. I'm surprised the fire inspectors didn't take me down."
But he did not stop there. Realizing that the theory could be tested in mice, Vafai last semester quickly moved to set up the experiments, which was no small feat since Stock had never worked with mice. The experiments required Vafai to learn many techniques, obtain the necessary permissions for animal studies and correspond extensively with experts in the field. He expects results in about a month.
"It's been an amazing year," said Vafai, who plans to enter a M.D./Ph.D. program at Harvard. But more than the success of the work, said Vafai, the best part has been the close relationship he has developed with Stock. "He's really made my experience at Princeton. He's a great mentor and a great friend."
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Editor: Ruth Stevens