Fighting Parkinson’s – Inside and Outside of the Lab

In addition to conducting research and providing clinical care, the Division of Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders is training the next generation of movement disorder clinicians and research experts.

In addition to our own fellowship program for physician scientists, members of our faculty mentor graduate and undergraduate students to conduct research.

Fighting Parkinson’s – Inside and Outside of the Lab 

Julia Ziaee, (Duke undergraduate, class of ‘22), was ten years old when her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “I grew up around the disease and watching how its progression affects people with the disease as well as their loved ones.” 

 When she arrived at Duke as a first-year undergraduate, Zaee wanted to make a difference, both in the research lab and from her dorm. Ziaee spent three years of her undergraduate career helping to perform research in the lab of Andrew West, PhD, studying the process of fibrillization of the protein alpha synuclein. “We all have alpha synuclein, but in Parkinson’s, these proteins, which usually exist as a chain, fibrolize or curl up,” Ziaee says. “We investigated the idea that the rate of fibrillization is connected to severity of disease.”  

Outside of the lab, Ziaee also joined the executive board of the Duke branch of Pancakes for Parkinson’s, a program that spread works to raise awareness about Parkinson’s disease and to raise money for Parkinson’s research. As part of the executive board, Ziaee organized silent auctions, pancake breakfasts, trivia nights and other events, helping to raise more than $15,000 for Parkinson’s research. “When I saw there were opportunities to get involved I was really excited,” Ziaee said. 

Since Ziaee’s graduation, Isabela Agi Maluli (Duke undergraduate, class of ‘25), has been continuing Ziaee’s work. In the West lab, Maluli is helping to conduct research to examine whether the immune system’s response to viral infection can start the development of neurodegeneration that leads to conditions like Parkinson’s. She’s also serving on the executive board for Pancakes for Parkinson’s.

“Being a part of this lab has been a wonderful experience,” Maluli says. “The mentoring I’ve received, along with a chance to be a part of this research, is why I came to Duke.”

Training the next generation of physician scientists 

The Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders fellowship at the Duke University School of Medicine is designed to produce the next generation of physician-scientists. The two-year fellowship program emphasizes clinical experience in the first year, then transitions to a research focus in the second year. Fellows are involved in all aspects of patient care, including initial diagnosis, ongoing patient management, deep brain stimulation implantation and management, and injection of botulinum toxin. For research training, fellows benefit from active mentoring, opportunities for collaboration with internationally-recognized research scientists, and incredible institutional support for physician-scientist trainees. 

“Since day one of fellowship, I have been impressed with the quality of teaching and mentorship demonstrated by the Movement Disorders attendings,” said Movement Disorders Fellow Brian Dahlben, MD, MSc. “It is a pleasure to be a part of this team, where I feel truly valued and able to cater the fellowship toward my specific career interests. Most importantly, the patient care we provide is superb, driven by high clinical expertise and a strong sense of empathy.”