"The human brain, then, is the most complicated organization of matter that we know."
— Isaac Asimov, Author
Tatiana Foroud may not come equipped with ships of wood and hardy crews of sailors, but she harbors a spiritual connection to historic figures like Columbus and Magellan: she's out to redraw the maps of the known universe.
Only Foroud and her research teams on the IUPUI campus aren't charting shipping lanes, discovering continents or greeting new civilizations. Their realm is the human brain, and more specifically, how the brain misfires and contributes to such debilitating diseases as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's and more.
"Our research is mainly in mapping genes that contribute to a person's susceptibility to common- but complex-genetic disorders," says the School of Medicine researcher, one of the world's leading authorities in the genetic implications of those and other diseases. "We do statistical genetic analysis of molecular data, hoping to identify the variables which may predispose one individual to those diseases, while protecting another."
Foroud is the director of the medical school's hereditary genomics division, a part of the medical and molecular genetics department in the School of Medicine. The division's research, based at the genetic level, is interwoven with the school's emerging strengths in such fields as computational biology and bioinformatics, as well as ethical issues that relate to gene discovery and its applications-all fields at the heart of the Life Sciences Initiative at IUPUI.
Perfect place, perfect time
Foroud believes the IUPUI campus "is perfectly suited" to the research work her teams pursue, in large part because of explosive growth in interdisciplinary work that she favors.
"In some campuses, researchers are far more limited by the culture that surrounds them," she says. "Here, we cross lines between departments, disciplines and schools, and nobody blinks an eye. In fact, it's expected in order to explore the world of possibilities that exist."
The collaborations aren't without challenges, though.
"Sometimes we have to spend the first 15 minutes of a meeting getting our jargon down so we can talk to one another," Foroud laughs. "But once we get the communication thing down, the ideas start to flow, and things get interesting."
The Connecticut native finds collaboration compelling because her fellow researchers share her passion for discovery.
"I've always found that you can do much more work-and better work-in a group than alone," Foroud says. "That's particularly true in today's medical research, because all our fields are converging. People with backgrounds in engineering, the humanities or other areas have different perspectives; when I'm in a group, I start to see things through their eyes. And I hope they can see things through mine-and you can't help but be positively influenced by those relationships."
Destined for research
For Foroud, scientific inquiry appears to be-not surprisingly-genetic. "I've always been curious, always wanted to know why things developed as they did," she says. "The more I delved into the world of genetics, the more I realized we had to learn. And I wanted to know it!"
That eagerness to learn has made Foroud a popular choice as principal investigator on a wide range of grants, including major awards in Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. As her body of work in mapping the genetic make-up of the brain grew, so did her reputation, which helped make her an obvious choice as the first P. Michael Conneally Professor of Medical and Molecular Genetics, named for the medical school's internationally recognized leader in genetics. The honor was special for Foroud, because Conneally-still active- was her mentor.
"When I came here in 1990, I worked on Dr. Conneally's Huntington's Disease project for my Ph.D.," she says. "It was great for a struggling graduate student to work with a man like him and a team like that, to see how they studied problems and came up with ideas to resolve them."
It was heady stuff for a newcomer to campus, a feeling she tries to pass on to her young researchers, particularly undergraduates.
"It's a great testing ground for those who think they are interested in medicine or research as a career choice," Foroud says. "We let 'em dive right in-it's the best way to learn if it's the life for you."
Rubbing elbows with topflight researchers was a rush for Foroud, but working with patients suffering from Huntington's Disease-for which there is no treatment-made an even bigger impression.
"You can't see that many people struggling with simple, basic things in life and not be moved," Foroud says. "Since those days, I've begun to work with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients, who face similar problems. But no matter which group I'm working with, or which disease I'm working on, knowing how hard they have to work to do things the rest of us take for granted keeps me motivated!"
Because there are no cures for any of the diseases on which she works, she and her partners are in on the ground floor, seeking clues to cures or effective treatments.
"The search for genes that increase or decrease the risk for Alzheimer's-or any other neurological disease-is a vital area of scientific research," says Foroud. "We hope that identifying these genes will guide us in developing drugs to counteract their negative effects."
While her team focuses on the genetic components, other research teams work on treatments to delay the symptoms of such diseases, while still others battle to improve the quality of life for those suffering from the neurological disorders.
"None of us know which secret will unlock the solution to any of these neurological diseases," Foroud says. "One day, we may find out which gene controls things, and develop a way to make the gene work properly. Until then, we keep looking."