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Staff Spotlight: Akshay Alaghatta

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Akshay Alaghatta’s love of space exploration made him want to be a physics major, until an introductory neuroscience course convinced him to study human consciousness instead. Now, as a research technician working with fellow NASA enthusiast Pawel Switonski, PhD, in the La Spada lab, he’s helping to advance our understanding of  spinocerebellar ataxia type 7 (SCA7) and neurodegenerative diseases in general, his plans for the future, and playing music, running, and writing science fiction when he’s not at Duke.

What are your current responsibilities within the La Spada lab? What does a typical day for you look like?
I’m a research technician and I work under Pawel Switonski, PhD. Typically, I grow cells in culture and run experiments on them. For example, I might treat them with a drug after exposing them to specific conditions to see how they respond in terms of their protein expression. I do similar experiments with mice. I also work in the Duke Neurology Morreene Road clinic on Fridays and administer memory exams to patients.

How and when did you first get interested in neuroscience?
I entered college as a physics major, because I wanted to study something related to space exploration. But I ended up falling in love with neuroscience after taking an-intro level course taught by Professor Stewart Hendry at Johns Hopkins. Neuroscience originally appealed to me because it seemed like a good starting point to explore the metaphysics of consciousness. I realize how far we are from having a good understanding of these topics, but I love trying. I loved learning about how our brain organizes information and presents it, especially from the perspective of the visual system. Since then, my career path has been heavily neuroscience-based, as I studied Alzheimer’s disease at the NIH, and now, here at Duke, I study spinocerebellar ataxia type 7, a movement disorder. My love for nerdy space stuff continued as well, though, and I ended up picking up a minor in Space Science and Technology!

What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love learning from my coworkers and mentors, about science and about other things. The people I surround myself with in lab are some of the most thoughtful and interesting people I know.

What is the hardest part of your job?
I find it hard to see the disease progression in our mouse models. But I do know it’s necessary for research progress, which will save human lives. At the end of the day, this is more important to me.

If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
I’d like to be a doctor! Maybe a pediatrician of some sort? I love kids. I’m working on a lengthier elaboration for my med school essays

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of Duke?
I love playing music and singing, running, making art, and writing science fiction. I ran cross country and track in college and now I coach the Duke running club. They’re a great group.

Alaghatta silly photo
Alaghatta shows off his wild side with his friend and fellow music enthusiast Patrick.

If you’re interested in hearing Alaghatta’s musical talents, check out his cover of Odesza’s higher ground here.