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Falling in Love With Science… and Boxing

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017 - 09:15

By Roberta Marongiu, PhD
Assistant Professor of Neuroscience
Molecular Neurosurgery Laboratory, Neurological Surgery
Feil Family Brain and Mind Institute

I fell in love with science when I was a teenager, thanks to a wonderful teacher I had in high school. She taught genetics, chemistry, and astronomy, and she recognized something in me that she encouraged me to pursue. Up until then I thought I would have a career in business, but thanks to her I changed my mind and chose a career in science instead.

The job market is tougher for women, and advancing our scientific careers is much more of a struggle, but things are slowly changing. I’ve been a member of the scientific community for more than ten years now, and I’m proud to have been a part of some of the best research teams anywhere, and to have collaborated with renowned scientists all over the world. And I am so proud to work here at Weill Cornell now, with Dr. Michael G. Kaplitt.

Over the past decade, my work has focused primarily on movement disorders – mostly Parkinson’s disease. One of the fascinating parts of this work is finding connections with other brain conditions. For example, right now one of my research interests is investigating sex differences in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

This work is a natural extension of my previous research here and in earlier positions. I had done my graduate school work in neurogenetics with Dr. Enza Maria Valente (at the University of Rome “Sapienza” in Italy). This was at a very exciting time, when Dr. Valente’s team identified a specific gene (the Pink1 gene) as being responsible for a certain form of Parkinsonism.   Our Pink1 studies opened up a new field of research in Parkinson’s disease — there have been 400 papers on the topic published since then.  After that, I worked in Dr. Eliezer Masliah’s laboratory at the University of California at San Diego, where our team was able to describe in greater detail just how Pink1 functions.

I joined Dr. Kaplitt’s lab in 2009, and I’ve had an amazing opportunity here to grow professionally and personally, expanding my areas of expertise and learning how to manage both my own research projects and the work and training of residents, medical students, and technicians. My latest research efforts here have focused on developing adeno-associated vectors (AAV) mediated gene therapies for Parkinson’s disease.

One of the main side effects of Parkinson’s medications is dyskinesia, a highly debilitating motor complication induced by long-term treatment with levodopa.  No current therapies address both the disease’s symptoms and the therapy-induced complications. In Dr. Kaplitt’s lab and in collaboration with the lab of Nobel laureate Dr. Paul Greengard, we identified p11 as novel target with the potential to improve both motor symptoms and dyskinesia.

At this point in my career, I’m focused on becoming an independent investigator, and my interest has definitely shifted towards translational research and a more patient-oriented approach to science. That’s what prompted me to combine my professional life with my personal life — through, of all things, boxing.

I started training with boxing and kickboxing at the suggestion of my husband, a theater and TV actor with an athletic background and a master’s degree in clinical psychology, who recommended them as a way to alleviate my back problems. Shortly after I started, I watched a boxing demonstration at the World Parkinson’s Conference in Montreal. And that was it — I made the connection.

Mounting scientific evidence has shown that intense exercise is extremely beneficial to Parkinson’s disease patients. Boxing routines are by their very nature the quintessential Parkinson’s workout because they improve balance, stamina, strength, eye-hand coordination, and the ability to move in different planes. Having experienced the benefits of these training regimens myself, and knowing as I do how beneficial exercise is for those with Parkinson’s disease, combining the two was a natural.

I’m proud to say that my husband and I are at the forefront of this approach. We have a bi-coastal nonprofit organization called stoPD (“Support and Training to Overcome Parkinson’s Disease”), and over the past three years we’ve created programs in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island, and Los Angeles. We collaborated with the Michael J. Fox Foundation and the National Parkinson’s Foundation on both east and west coasts. It’s tremendously gratifying work.

I wish I knew what the future holds when it comes to finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease, but we are not quite there yet. That being said, this is a great and exciting time for research on neurodegenerative disorders. I’m extremely optimistic that we’ll find a cure in my lifetime. For now, the key is improving the quality of life of those who have Parkinson’s disease in the present, and listening to what patients have to say — in other words, translation research and clinical approach.

Read Dr. Marongiu's research papers on PubMed

More about the Molecular Neurosurgery Laboratory at the Weill Cornell Medicine Brain and Spine Center