Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States; every 66 seconds someone in the United States develops it. By 2050, 16 million could be inflicted, costing the nation $1.1 trillion. Senior neuroscience and molecular genetics student Maya Gosztyla is an example of our nation’s bold response to a pressing issue.
Alzheimer’s often comes with memory loss and impaired judgment. Everyday tasks such as swallowing, maintaining balance and going to the bathroom are daunting. Further complicating the matter, Alzheimer’s inhibits the victim’s ability to sense and express what they are going through. They often do not report symptoms and side effects, making it nearly impossible to follow a treatment plan. In fact, people with Alzheimer’s have hundreds of small seizures every second that they do not see. There is hope, however. More than 15 million Americans have provided 18.2 billion hours of unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s.
For Gosztyla, it all began when she witnessed her grandmother’s memory loss. With every additional person her grandmother failed to recognize, Gosztyla’s obsession of digging into the science behind the disease grew stronger. Today, it fuels her: “Nobody seems to know how to cure it, or even know what it is. That is a problem.” Gosztyla was determined to get her hands dirty.
In order to feed her passion for tackling the issue, she secured two sources of funding, allowing her to spend three months conducting research in Switzerland this past summer. While most students do not get the privilege to do so until after graduate school, she was able to design her own project.
She set up a plan for her research prior to arriving, began her in-country research a month earlier than her program started, and worked in the lab 80 to 100 hours a week, relentlessly pushing for clues as to what triggers Alzheimer’s.
Gosztyla examined the blood brain barrier, an area in which toxins accumulate during the day and need to be flushed out during sleep. One of such toxins causes Alzheimer’s. The theory is that if people fail to get enough sleep, these dangerous toxins will not be cleared out. She wanted to investigate both the validity of this theory as well as the effects an aging blood brain barrier might have on the phenomenon.
Gosztyla looked at both young and old mice, some of which possessed the gene that triggers Alzheimer’s. Upon analyzing the data collected thus far, it seems to her that the transporter for the Alzheimer protein does not work as effectively for older mice. She has kept in touch with the lab, and they are updating her on what they find as they continue on with her project.
Even with limited hours left to explore, Gosztyla took advantage of her first opportunity to travel. Twenty other students from across the world were admitted to the program, and she went out of her way to learn more about the cultures she found herself surrounded by. Although she was the only participant who spoke one language, they hiked every weekend together. Trips to Greece, Italy, Paris and Spain were also part of the agenda.
Although curiosity drives her, the ability to publish and share what she finds is where the true excitement lies. Her research has allowed her to form a community, one in which experts in the field unite under a shared mission to find answers. She acts as the editor-in-chief of an international research journal called the Journal of Young Investigators. The journal collects entries from every English-speaking country and discusses topics across all sciences. Gosztyla is looking for students to help write and design pieces for the journal.
Gosztyla is also a recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship given in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. It is awarded to only 300 college students nationwide.
Gosztyla ensures that each minute of her day is dedicated to one of her passions, and her planner is color-coded accordingly: “if I truly enjoy doing something, I will find time to make it happen. I have downloaded a few applications to track how much time I spend on my phone. I would rather spend that time with my friends.”
Gosztyla had a four-year plan prior to arriving at Ohio State: she was set on going to graduate school and becoming a professor one day. However, being able to adjust that plan is just as crucial. Gosztyla learned that the hard way, recently pondering that she might get involved with research at a company.
“People are quick to select a track within science, but they do not spend enough time reflecting on how they fit as their academic journey unfolds,” Gosztyla says. “I always wanted to be a professor, but found that only 10% of students get there even after spending six years getting a Ph.D. As you undergo new experiences, I have found that both having a backup plan and not being afraid to embrace one is vital.”