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A donor visit to a Packard lab sparks a new career path in ALS research

College student Andrew Nelson first visited a Packard Center research lab several years ago with his mother, grandmother and cousins out of curiosity.  “We went to visit because we were interested in Dr. Rothstein’s research and we wanted to see first-hand how donations were put to work,” noted Nelson.  The Nelson and Gluck families had come to learn about the Packard Center's founder and director Jeff Rothstein's work through their visits to the Hopkins ALS Clinic.

Little did he know, as he toured the Hopkins facilities and looked through the impressive microscopes and interacted with researchers and lab technicians, that it would spark an interest in ALS research and alter the direction of his education and his career.

Nelson was all too familiar with ALS. In 2014, his beloved grandfather, John Gluck, was diagnosed with the disease.  With no family history, this healthy and active 70-year-old died within a year of diagnosis, devastating the family.  The Gluck family turned to philanthropy and funding research at the Packard Center to help honor John’s memory.

During the tour, Dr. Rita Sattler gave the family a detailed tour of a Hopkins ALS laboratory.  Sattler spoke about summer internship opportunities that were available for interested students.  Nelson, a pre-med major at James Madison University, reached out to Sattler via email later that day.  “I was so impressed that day and really connected with Dr. Sattler,” noted Nelson. “I reached out to her immediately and she encouraged me to apply.” 

Three months later, Nelson moved to Baltimore for the summer to begin working at Hopkins as an intern.  After a summer of hands-on experience,  Nelson was still considering a future in science.  During his final semester, Nelson learned that Dr. Sattler had accepted a faculty position at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. After graduation, Nelson took a staff position in her newly formed lab.

“We loved having Andrew on staff at Barrow, ” noted Sattler. “He was a bright and dedicated student, and the fact that he had the unique perspective of having lost someone close to ALS made him an ideal member of our research team.”

He stayed on at Barrow for a year but knew that graduate school would be the next logical step.  Using the Packard Center research list, Nelson narrowed down his choices in schools, selecting universities that already had an active ALS research program.  Ultimately, he chose the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia where he is currently enrolled in a five-year neuroscience PhD program.

Nelson chose Jefferson for several reasons, but what clinched his decision were the three professors with active ALS research, including Packard science director Piera Pasinelli.   In addition to attending classes, Nelson will participate in three rotations in the different neuroscience labs on campus.

Although Nelson is still new to the world of ALS research, he remains hopeful "that significant progress will be made.” He recently attended at the Packard Center’s Annual Research Symposium held in Baltimore last month where he was exposed to all the latest research into the disease, giving him many reasons to remain optimistic.

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