Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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With help from innovators, BU earns recognition as top research university

Boston University is home to many researchers who specialize in subjects ranging from planet formation, such as Dr. Catherine Espaillat, to curing Alzheimer’s disease, such as Max Wallack, junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. These are just two people out of many who research their specialties through BU. This is not surprising seeing how the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education categorizes BU as a RU/VH Research University, meaning it has high research activity. After jumping from 51 to 41 in the annual U.S. News & World Report ranking of colleges and universities this past fall, BU is making a name for itself as one of the top research universities by engaging professors and students alike in and outside of the university.

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Max Wallack, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, is on his way to discovering a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but he got an early start.

The Natick native was six when his great-grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and moved in with him and his family.

“I was one of her primary caregivers until her death, when I was 10,” Wallack said. “I saw the toll on people suffering from Alzheimer’s and on the families of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease researcher. I really wanted to make a difference.”

Seven years later, Wallack is an author, an inventor, a neuroscience major and an Alzheimer’s disease researcher, and he has yet to celebrate his 18th birthday.

Wallack realized he wanted to focus his life on Alzheimer’s disease while attending BU Academy and started working in his lab as soon as it was legal for him to do so at the age of 15.

Wallack began working at the Laboratory of Molecular Psychiatry in Aging at BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center. The laboratory is focused on biomarkers, which can provide an early identification of Alzheimer’s disease.

“One of the major problems with Alzheimer’s disease is we have some drugs that can be useful, but most people get diagnosed too late,” Wallack said. “If we can diagnose people earlier and give them the drug, it can help them. That’s why we are looking at biomarkers.”

For the past two years Wallack and his lab team, which consists of Dr. Wendy Qui and two other scientists, have been concerned with a hormone in people that can be used to identify Alzheimer’s disease. Wallack also investigates a diabetes drug that can potentially help Alzheimer’s patients.

“If we catch Alzheimer’s early enough, we can use the drug as treatment,” Wallack said. “We have done it as a test on both mice and humans and it has gone very well. It seems to be very beneficial.”

The drug that Wallack wants to give people is already FDA approved, so Wallack and his team are just waiting for the ability to have a clinical trial.

Wallack recalls that the time with his great-grandmother was difficult, but it was important in the way that it impacted him. The experience with his great-grandmother also inspired his idea to form the nonprofit organization called Puzzles to Remember   back in 2008.

“When I would visit my great-grandmother in nursing homes and hospitals, I would see her and other patients doing jigsaw puzzles,” Wallack said. “After she passed away, I started researching the benefits of puzzles on neuron activity.”

Wallack later partnered with Springbook Puzzles in St. Louis, Mo., collaborating with the company to create specialized puzzles for Alzheimer’s patients. These puzzles come with bigger puzzle pieces and memory provoking pictures and themes.

Wallack has also co-written a children’s book called Why Did Grandma Put Her Underwear in the Refrigerator, which explains Alzheimer’s disease to children and is in the process of being translated into 11 different languages.

In the close future Wallack plans to apply to medical schools. He wants to become a geriatric psychiatrist in order to work directly with Alzheimer’s patients, their caregivers and their families. Wallack will also continue his search for the cure.

“I still want to continue doing research because it is very interesting and important to me,” Wallack said. “I think that the research I’m doing has the ability to help people, and I’m very fortunate for being able to do it.”

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Growing up in New York, Assistant Professor Catherine Espaillat was doubtful of the PBS specials on stars and planets she watched on TV. Even a telescope that she saved up for did not have the power to look past the thick, light-polluted  New York City night sky. Soon she began studying the formation of planets stemmed from childhood skepticism of what really happened in space.

“I remember I saved up and bought a telescope in the sixth grade,” Espaillat said. “I got this fancy telescope and I pointed to a blob in the sky, and then in the telescope I just saw a bigger blob in the sky. And I was like, ‘this sucks! This is so not impressive.’”

Espaillat’s disbelief in what she watched on TV and what she saw through her telescope made her want to investigate the stars and planets. Her inspiration for getting involved in astronomy was, “the idea that all this could be out there, but we just don’t see it.”

Although an interest in space always quipped in Espaillat, she did not come across her research right away. Espaillat attended Columbia University as a pre-med major, but changed to astronomy halfway through her undergraduate program. Espaillat later attended the University of Michigan for graduate school. During this time she found her niche in astronomy research.

“When I started at the University of Michigan I was working on active galactic nuclei, which are galaxies with really big black holes in the center,” Espaillat said. “It wasn’t what held my interest, but then there was someone in the department who worked on planet formation, and that’s what I wanted to study.”

Espaillat started her research in 2007 while attending grad school and has been expanding her work ever since. Espaillat is interested in solving one of the big questions in astronomy: how do planets form? In order to solve this question she has to study young stars in other solar systems that are just forming.

“We know that there are lots of planets out there,” Espaillat said. “But where did they come from? We know they’re there, but how did they form? I study stars that are a million years old. Compared to our sun that is very, very young. The objects I look at are what our sun looked like when it was a baby.”

Espaillat researches these questions because she wants to know how our own solar system and planet formed. More specifically, she studies “transition disks” that are composed of gas and dust surrounding a forming star. In the disks, small dust grains float around and stick to one another. As these objects, that are 140 parsecs (456.628 light years) away, grow bigger and bigger they form rocks, boulders and even cores of planets.

“What we think happens is that the planet, as it’s going through the disk and going around the star, sucks up the material around itself because it’s trying to get bigger and it’s going to leave out a gap,” Espaillat explains. “So it’s kind of like Saturn’s rings and you see that there’s little gaps in between the rings. If you look closely in each of those rings there’s a little room, so as the smaller objects revolve the bigger object, there’s this disk.”

Espaillat hopes that the near future will bring better technology that can capture these baby stars and their formation process.

“I’m hoping that a decade or so from now we can get telescopes that allow us to do this,” Espaillat said. “In the future we’ll be able to start taking pictures of them, but right now we can’t do that. It’s very tempting, though. We have these baby planets out there, we see the signatures they leave, but we don’t see the planets themselves.”

As of now, Espaillat teaches a graduate level course, and next September she will be teaching Astronomy 101. Espaillat said it’s great to work at BU because she is able to interact with students and teach other people.

“It’s kind of like training people to be junior scientists and apprentices,” Espaillat said. “I can invest time in people so that they can go off and have their great ideas and do their wonderful research.”

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