Graduate student spotlight: Understanding genetic risk in Parkinson’s
October 15, 2020
Throughout the year, we highlight Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month features Jordan Prahl, a student in the lab of Dr. Gerry Coetzee. Jordan studies how genetic factors impact the development of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects 7–10 million people worldwide.
Q: How would you describe your area of study to someone without a science background?
JP: Most people associate Parkinson’s disease (PD) with old age, but part of the risk is written in our DNA and may begin even before birth. My team and I study a mutation of a single letter in the genetic code that raises one’s risk for PD. Although it is a high-risk mutation, nobody knows quite how it works or what it does. Our research points toward this mutation’s role in neuronal development, which means PD is, in part, a developmental disorder.
Q: What do you want to do with your degree?
JP: In short, I want to solve problems. Grad school has shown me that I really enjoy identifying and answering questions, so I will be looking for any opportunity to keep flexing those creative muscles.
Q: Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?
JP: After I graduated in 2013, I took a couple years “off” as a bartender. Sometimes it was tedious, and sometimes it was stressful, but I honestly gained a lot from that experience. Most notably, I met my wife, Heather, while I was working at the bar. She’s the one who encouraged me not to give up on science after I struggled to get my foot in the door. Thanks to her, I joined the Institute as a technician in 2015 and eventually joined the Graduate School in 2017.
Q: Do you think there is any value in social networking with other graduate students in non-related fields?
JP: Absolutely. The toughest problems to solve require an interdisciplinary approach, and if you want to be effective at addressing those problems, then you’re going to need friends in a lot of fields. I bounce ideas off friends in other fields constantly. Plus, you never know who’s going to help you make your next career move.
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?
JP: My time in undergrad was a bit rocky, but it definitely helped prepare me for grad school. I let distractions get to me, and I dug myself a hole academically, but it forced me to focus and be responsible.
Q: What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?
JP: When I’m stressed, I like to play with my dog, hang out with friends and family, and visit the breweries around Grand Rapids.
Q: Why did you choose Van Andel Institute Graduate School?
JP: Van Andel Institute was the first community to give me the opportunity to get research experience as an intern, and I feel a certain level of loyalty for that. More importantly, after working at the Institute for several years, I witnessed firsthand the quality of research being conducted here and the respect VAI shows for all its scientists.
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?
JP: From my first year, I’d put in my first research proposal to remind me of how much I’ve improved. From my second year, I’d include my lab notes so I could laugh at my first attempts to use CRISPR-Cas9. Third year, I’d include my mask from the pandemic. And from fourth year, I’d include the ultrasound of my sons.
Q: If you hadn’t been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?
JP: I can say with certainty that I would be doing science no matter what. I wasn’t admitted to grad school the first time around (or second, or third). But rejection made me confront if it was worth the pursuit, and for me it was, so I never gave up.
Most recently, I didn’t get into Van Andel Institute Graduate School, but I told them I’d see them again next recruiting cycle. The following year during my interview I told them we could do it now, or next year, but I wasn’t going to quit until they accepted me. I think that’s the mindset you need in order to be successful in grad school (and science in general).