Graduate student spotlight: Exploring genetic risk in Parkinson’s

Throughout the year, we highlight Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month, we’re featuring Alix Booms, a student in the lab of Dr. Gerry Coetzee. Alix studies how genetics impact the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. 

Q: How would you describe your area of study to someone without a scientific background?

AB: Parkinson’s disease is likely caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Our lab’s research focuses on pinpointing the genetic factors that increase a person’s risk for getting Parkinson’s. We also try to understand how these genetic factors affect processes in cells and lead to disease. For my project, I am specifically interested in studying how the function of brain immune cells, called microglia, might be influenced by genetics. Evidence suggests that these cells are involved in Parkinson’s development, but it is still unclear how they contribute to the disease.

Q: What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?

AB: I love what I do on a daily basis. Although graduate school can be challenging, it is very rewarding. I also know that graduate school will provide me with the skills I will need to develop as a researcher and to keep doing what I am passionate about. 

Q: What do you want to do with your degree?

AB: I really enjoy analyzing large sequencing datasets. I am hoping to get a position in academic research where I can use these skills to evaluate sequencing data to find causal mechanisms that lead to disease. I am also considering working toward becoming a principal investigator, where I would manage my own lab and incorporate large dataset analysis into my own research. 

Q: Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?

AB: After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, I worked in the quality assurance packaging lab at Amway for about nine months. I then got a job at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, in the Toxicology and Environmental Research Department. After about two and a half years at Dow, I wanted to transition to academic research, so I moved back to the Grand Rapids area to pursue a master’s degree in cell and molecular biology from Grand Valley State University. During my last semester, I got a job as a technician in Dr. Gerry Coetzee’s lab. I worked for Dr. Coetzee for a couple of years before joining Van Andel Institute Graduate School.

Q: How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?

AB: During undergrad, I studied animal science, which gave me some background in basic biology, but it wasn’t until my studies at Grand Valley State University that I really gained a strong base of knowledge in cell and molecular biology. Some of the most valuable things that I learned from the master’s program was how to culture cells and the proper ways to carry out basic nucleic acids research techniques.

Q: How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?

AB: As a technician, I was fortunate enough to have a boss who let me decide the direction of my research projects. One of the reasons I decided to go back to graduate school is because I knew that not all technicians get this opportunity, and I wanted to make sure that I continued to have independence in my research career. In this way, I think I will be able to have a greater impact in the science community. 

Q: Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school, or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?

AB: Although it took me longer than many people to decide on a career path, I feel that I was very well prepared to take on graduate studies. After being in the working world, I have gained a greater appreciation for what is to come after graduation. Because of this, I strive to incorporate additional things into my education experience that will better prepare me for a career in science. 

Q: What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?

AB: My favorite stress-reduction technique is exercise and spending time with my family. I also like to cook healthy food when I have the time. 

Q: What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?

AB: I feel that I have worked very hard to be where I am in my career, but I am most proud to be the mom of my two little boys. Oliver is three years old, and Avery is six.

Q: Why did you choose Van Andel Institute Graduate School?

AB: After working at the Institute for a few years, I knew that I would be happy as a student. The small program size really allows for each student to develop their own interests. We also have some of the best researchers in the fields of neurodegenerative science and genomics, which are two topics that I am very interested in.

Q: Has your perception of this Ph.D. program changed since you began the program?

AB: I don’t think my perception of the program has changed, but I didn’t anticipate the amount of knowledge I would gain in preparation to become an independent scientist. For example, until I took the advanced grantsmanship course, I didn’t realize how much time and effort it takes to be a competitive applicant for research funding.

Q: If you were asked to put something in a time capsule for each year you have been in the program and this capsule would not be opened for 25 years, what would you contribute?

AB: I don’t have anything specific for each year, but if I had to put one thing, it would probably be one of my lab notebooks. Methods are always evolving, so I would probably get a good laugh at how inefficient some of my research was.

Q: If you hadn’t been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?

AB: I would probably still be a technician in Dr. Coetzee’s lab. It was/is a great job!

Interested in Van Andel Institute Graduate School? Learn more at vaigs.vai.org and read previous student spotlights here.