Staff Spotlight: Lidia Tagliafierro, PhD
For this week’s spotlight interview, we turn to postdoctoral associate Lidia Tagliafierro, PhD, who talks to us about her work evaluating structural varients in SNCA gene expression, what it’s like to earn your PhD in Italy and France, and traveling through Europe, the Caribbean, and (eventually) Bora Bora.
What are your responsibilities within the Department? What does a typical day for you look like?
I am a postdoctoral associate in Dr. Chiba-Falek’s lab. The main goal of my postdoctoral project is the functional evaluation of structural variants that have been identified in the SNCA gene. It has been suggested that SNCA expression levels are critical for the development of synucleinopathies, in particular for Parkinson’s Disease, Dementia with Lewy Bodies and Multiple System Atrophy. On a typical day, I walk from my apartment to Duke, during this time I have a call with my mother in Italy. Once I get to the lab, I spend most of the time planning and doing experiments. I usually have new ideas to move on with my project, and I try to make them concrete. Usually I finish working late, after which I go to the gym. I like to spend time with my friends chatting, listening to music and having a good glass of wine.
How did you first get interested in neuroscience? What interests you most about the field?
Since I was a child, I have been always fascinated by science. I remember asking myself “why” for everything I was looking at. What fascinated me about neuroscience was when I started studying the brain and the mechanisms of communication between neurons. The communication between cells and the importance of the environment is a part of neuroscience that always interested me.
You were the lead author of a recent study examining how gene expression affects synucleinopathies. What were the primary findings of this study? What implications does this study have for patient care?
We recently reviewed the role of up-regulation of SNCA gene expression in synucleinopathies. We reported several model systems that have been developed to advance the understanding of the role of SNCA expression in the etiology of synucleinopathies.
We proposed a model to study Parkinson’s disease (PD) and Dementia with Lewy Body (DLB). The use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) leverage the meaning of the cell culture model based research. In fact, in our lab we differentiate iPSCs into dopaminergic and cholinergic neurons to mimic PD and DLB respectively. Future studies utilizing iPSC-derived neuronal lines and genome editing by CRISPR/Cas9, will allow us to validate, characterize, and manipulate the effects of particular cis-genetic variants on SNCA expression.
The main idea of our review is that there is a threshold SNCA expression level leading to different synucleinopathies. Dopaminergic neurons, cortical neurons (mainly cholinergic) and oligodendrocytes may exhibit different vulnerability to a-synuclein overexpression. In addition, interactions with other causal genes may determine the particular disease path. There are common but distinct regulatory mechanisms and vulnerability thresholds of SNCA gene expression that underlie the etiology of synucleinopathies.
Tagliafierro earned her doctorate in Paris and Naples, Italy.
You studied for your PhD in Paris and Naples. What did you enjoy most about each of those experiences? How does graduate education in France and Italy differ from graduate education in the United States?
I received my PhD in Cell Biochemistry at the Second University of Naples. In the framework of the PhD program, it is mandatory to spend some months abroad. During my second year of PhD, I was visiting Dr. Allinquant’s lab at the INSERM in Paris. I worked with Dr. Allinquant’s group for 7 months. The scientific and personal experiences were both great. I really enjoyed the differences in approaching the scientific problems in Naples and in Paris as well. Paris is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever lived in. I enjoyed the people and the environment I worked in. In Italy, PhD education is a three-year program and PhD students can access the PhD program only after completing a Master’s Degree.
Have you recently read any books, articles, or websites that would be of interest to others in the Department?
I have recently read an article where researchers at The University of Miami explain how functional connections in the brain change over time. They studied the insular cortex, a brain region involved in performing a variety of tasks (i.e. attention, emotion and pain). They found that the insula is particularly flexible and they considered the deviations of the average profile in a functional way. These deviations may help to explain why the insula is so involved in many different mental processes. The lack of flexibility in the insula could explain pathologies such as autism. The researchers think that the reduced dynamics of the insula can somehow explain the inflexible behaviors in children with this disorder.
What passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?
One of my biggest passions is traveling. I like exploring new environments, new areas, and new cultures. I like working out and spending time with friends. I truly believe in the power of communication between people and I think that the strength of each person resides in how much you can inspire people and help them move forward.
My suitcase and my mind are always ready-to-go! I like spending time on the seaside and on the top of a mountain. One of my favorite trip was on 2010 when I visited Saint Thomas in the Caribbean. I have a lot dream destinations; if I can mention the first three I will say: Madagascar, New Zealand and Bora Bora.
Tagliefierro poses during a Carribbean vacation