Department of Chemistry

OU student studies neuroscience at the Marine Biological Laboratory

icon of a calendarSeptember 9, 2021

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OU student studies neuroscience at the Marine Biological Laboratory
Sarah Denha
Ph.D. student Sarah Denha participated in a monthlong neurobiology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts this summer.

Oakland University doctoral student Sarah Denha traveled to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts this summer to take part in a neurobiology course that introduced her to cutting-edge research techniques taught by leading experts in the field.   

The course, "Neurobiology: Mechanisms and Advanced Approaches,” was directed by faculty from UC Berkeley and Yale University. Denha was one of only 18 students accepted into the course and received funding from the Grass Foundation and OU to cover tuition. Throughout the five-week course, students worked with several model organisms to conduct experiments, collect data and present findings on a variety of scientific topics.

“One of my projects used a fruit fly, which is the model organism I use in my lab,” said Denha. “This was the first time I dissected fruit fly larvae. I used calcium imaging to study whether skin cells of the larvae can sense temperature changes.”   

Along with the lab component, students attended daily lectures from renowned scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Roderick McKinnon who spoke to the group via Zoom. Denha said the course broadened her network and exposed her to new ways of thinking about research. It also helped clarify her goal of investigating the molecular underpinnings of neurological disease. 

Sarah Denha

While at the MBL, Denha used a technique called electrophysiology to do a field electrical recording of mice hippocampal neurons. 

“Once I saw other areas of neuroscience, I realized why I love the research I’m currently doing,” she said. “Once we know how neurons connect, we need to go to the molecular level to find the source of problems. Why is the cell not functioning properly? That is the question I want to answer.”

As a student in Professor Adam Avery’s lab, Denha has spent the past two years working on NIH-funded research investigating gene mutations associated with spinocerebellar ataxia type 5. It’s one form of a rare degenerative brain disorder that affects motor skills such as balance, coordination and speech. The disease is vastly understudied and has no known cure, but Denha is doing her part to change that.

“I had never heard of the disease before I joined Dr. Avery’s lab,” said Denha. “Then I met people with the disease on Zoom and they sent me an email afterward. I felt I needed to study the disease and help find a cure. It’s more than just getting a Ph.D. or publishing a paper. It’s about giving people hope for a better future.”

This sense of purpose has led Denha to where she is today. Born in Iraq, she immigrated with her family to the United States in 2013, just weeks away from earning her high school diploma. She lived in California for a year, honed her English and earned her GED. After moving to Michigan in 2014, she enrolled at Macomb Community College and later transferred to OU, completing a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. 

Sarah Denha and Adam Avery

Denha has spent the past two years working with OU Professor Adam Avery on NIH-funded research on spinocerebellar ataxia type 5. 

In fall 2019, Denha enrolled in OU’s master’s program in chemistry. She joined Dr. Avery’s lab and started doing research on spinocerebellar ataxia type 5. She excelled at the work and, with support from Dr. Avery, transitioned to OU’s Ph.D. program in biomedical sciences the following year.

“I had no research experience (before graduate school), but with Dr. Avery’s mentoring and one-to-one interaction, I learned fast,” she said. “I gained so much confidence and within a year I presented my work at the international American Society for Cell Biology Conference. I did virtual conferences during COVID and met others who are interested in my area of research. Dr. Avery encouraged me to apply for the Marine Biological Laboratory course, which helped me make more connections and see opportunities after I finish my Ph.D.” 

For his part, Dr. Avery has enjoyed seeing Denha develop into a capable researcher whose goals are rooted in her core values.

“Sarah has been a great success story,” said Dr. Avery. “She’s worked hard and embraced opportunities to grow in her field. I think being accepted into an exclusive, high-caliber program like the MBL course really shows her potential as a scientist. She had the chance to learn from top scientists in the world and came away with a renewed sense of identity and purpose.”

Sarah Denha at conference

Denha presented her research at the 2019 American Society for Cell Biology Conference.

Earlier this year, Denha appeared with Dr. Avery as a co-author on an article published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. She is drawn to all aspects of academic life, from teaching to presenting at conferences to conducting research that could lead to life-changing medical advances.

“I love the novelty of research,” she said. “I love the challenge of looking at data and trying to figure out what it means. And I love knowing that my work has the power to positively impact people’s lives.”

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