Mount Royal University Assistant Professor and Neurobiologist, Carol Armstrong’s research proposal on determining the role of the small heat shock protein (Hsp25) in neuroprotection and cell survival in the cerebellum, earned her this year’s Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award.
“The primary neurons in the cerebellum, called Purkinje cells, are susceptible to cell death in broad and varied circumstances such as alcoholism, schizophrenia, autism, stroke and epilepsy,” explains Armstrong.
“Previous research demonstrated that a key factor related to Purkinje cell survival in the cerebellum is the expression of the small heat shock protein.”
Awarded $20,000 for her proposal, Armstrong plans to purchase supplies and reagents for the lab, attend conferences and pay for student stipends in order to expand her research on cell survival and Hsp25 expression at Mount Royal.
But what is the importance in understanding more about the role of Hsp25 for the future?
“Everyone has a cerebellum,” says Armstrong. “Neuronal cell death underlies many neurodegenerative diseases and an understanding of the elements of Purkinje cell survival may extend other neurons in the brain and spinal cord as well.
“As an example, the neurons that die in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — also express the small heat shock protein.”
Armstrong is no stranger to research involving the cerebellum as she completed her PhD in a cerebellum lab.
“I am interested in all aspects of brain development including both normal and abnormal and how this translates into our understanding about neurological disease,” says Armstrong. “The cerebellum is traditionally associated with coordination and balance, but more recently has been implicated in such diverse functions as cognitive and perceptual analysis, memory and emotional processing.”
While advancing her neurological expertise, Armstrong had some incredible encounters.
When she and her husband were working as postdoctoral fellows at the Salk Institute of Biological Science in California, they walked to the lab with the discoverer of DNA, Francis Crick and Nobel Prize winner, Sydney Brenner.
“It was amazing to work at the same institute as all of these incredibly bright scientists,” says Armstrong.
Recognizing the importance of research
Armstrong knows the importance of navigating the research world early on in education.
“When I started my Master’s degree at Dalhousie University I had very little understanding of research and research techniques,” Armstrong explains. “My supervisor was a stickler for detail and accuracy and pushed me to have high expectations.
“I would like to include students from 1st year all the way through to 4th year, so that students are involved in research from the beginning of their undergraduate education and can learn from one another.”
Asking questions and being curious
Armstrong has had student research assistants throughout the years who experienced many positive outcomes.
“My first research student, Tara Dumont, was an undergraduate Health Science student who worked with me over the summer in 2011,” Armstrong says. “Despite having limited experience in a research lab, she had an amazingly productive few months.”
The knowledge Dumont gained from this experience included learning how to section brain tissue and process it for immunohistochemistry and producing publication-quality data with little supervision.
“Research is about asking questions and being curious,” Armstrong says. “Academic programs often wait until students are in 4th year before getting them involved in research — ostensibly to give them the background knowledge they need to investigate scientific questions — but there is no reason why bright, motivated 1st year students can’t also be involved.
“I think it’s very important for students to challenge ‘classic knowledge’ and ask themselves questions such as ‘why,?’ ‘how do we do this,?’ and ‘why do we think this is how it works,?’ rather than passively accepting that information in a textbook must be true.”
— Angela S., Sept. 27, 2012