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Building the next generation
NEW YORK—Aimed at cultivating and funding future scientists to eventually find a cure for Parkinson’s disease (PD), a debilitating movement disorder affecting the lives of seven million worldwide, the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF) and the American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA) have joined hands to award Summer Student Fellowships to the best and brightest undergraduates and medical students on the planet.
The collaboration, announced Oct. 15, expands opportunities for talented students to gain early exposure to careers in Parkinson’s by participating in a 10-week research fellowship alongside established leaders in the field.
“The PDF and APDA share an urgency for improving the lives of the one million people in the U.S. living with Parkinson’s,” stated Robin Anthony Elliott, president of PDF. “And we know that all too often, young talented researchers—those who represent the future of our field—face challenges when beginning careers in science. We are committed to cultivating their early interest and commitment and welcoming them to the fight against Parkinson’s.”
The chosen ones will get an introduction to a lab setting, as well as firsthand experience working with science professors and PD advocates living the disease, he said.
“We have funded more than 200 fellowships over the years, many toward specialized medical training,” James Beck, vice president of scientific affairs for PDF, tells DDNews. “This is the first year of our joint fellowship program with APDA.”
Despite the large amount of money that PDF and “other Parkinson foundations and the government have given to PD research, we have not developed a cure—or even a treatment—to control many of the PD symptoms,” Beck said. “We won’t rest until there is a cure.”
From an average of about 70 applicants each year, the PDF chooses from 10 to 15 from the U.S., Canada and Europe, who get paired with a professor or doctor to get their feet wet, Beck said. However, this year the two groups have settled on choosing the top 12 applicants.
The grant “is just a small amount of money, but provides an opportunity to make a difference,” he said. Over the past 50 years, the PDF budget “has more than tripled, rising from $2.7 million in 1996 to over $10 million in fiscal year 2014.”
Recently, PDF took a new look at the life cycle of a Parkinson’s scientist and, as noted by Elliott, “At once, we saw the need to capture rising stars before they drift from the field for lack of career options.”
As he wrote on the PDF website: “We reviewed data that traced careers of scientists from the time they enter graduate school—whether for medicine or for basic science—to the time they receive their first research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We found that between 1980 and today, the average age at which scientists received their first NIH grants went up nearly 10 years—from the mid- 30s to the mid-40s. Not only that, but among all scientists who receive major NIH support, the percentage who are 'young' (35 years and under) at the time of their first grant dropped from 12 percent in 1980 to almost zero today.
“Such changes have redefined the definition of an ‘early-career’ scientist. They have also meant a sharp increase in the burden on the scientists themselves, who want to stay in the field of PD but simply cannot afford to wait out the time that may never come. It is a ‘valley of death,’ a time during which scientists decide whether to stay in research or to take an alternative path. The strain is such that we are losing some of the brightest minds from the fight against Parkinson’s disease.”
Since 2002, PDF has funded nearly 200 summer student fellows, who have gone on to a variety of careers in medicine, healthcare and basic research. Similarly, APDA has funded more than 120 medical students through its Summer Research Fellowship program since 1984. These investments have not only enabled students to build their own research careers, but have also allowed students to contribute significantly to the Parkinson’s research of established scientists with whom they work.
Through this collaboration, PDF and APDA are investing $60,000 toward Summer Student Fellowships. The collaboration offers undergraduate and medical students $4,000 in funding for Parkinson’s research projects to be conducted over a 10-week period in the summer of 2016. It also expands the program by offering additional funding for qualified students to share their Parkinson’s research findings with the scientific community at relevant conferences.
“This innovative partnership supports our mutual focus to inspire and invest in young scientists at a critical time in their educational and professional careers. APDA is delighted to combine efforts with PDF to ensure talented medical students are provided with important seed funding that could lead to a long-term commitment to Parkinson’s research while potentially helping to unlock the mysteries of this complex and devastating disease that impacts millions of families worldwide,” said Leslie Chambers, president and CEO of APDA.