Podcast: Understanding the problem to find a solution with Febronia Mansour

Febronia Mansour

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
Febronia Mansour, a Guilderland High School senior, has studied transparent glowing worms in a quest to better understand Alzheimer's disease.



00:00 Good afternoon, this is Melissa Hale-Spencer, the editor at The Altamont Enterprise here this afternoon with Febronia Mansour and our readers will have seen her picture, our photographer Michael Koff, went to the Guilderland public library a couple of weeks back and covered the, um, presentations of Guilderland high school students who were talking to the public about in-depth research projects they've done. And when Mike came back and he's pretty low-key guy, he said, you should see this girl for you should listen to what she has to say. He was so impressed with your research. So we thought we'd call you up. Welcome. Thank you. So we'll just start with that because that's what brought you here. Tell us if you can a little about what, what that semester long or no,  the research project was about

01:03 . Well, um, it was a year long project and it was part of a class called exploring with mindful creativity and curiosity. So within this class, um, which was started by our librarians, Mr Bob and Ms Gergen over at the high school, um, each student is given the chance to choose a chop, a topic of their own interests and explore that for the whole year. So throughout that process we have things like self designed assessments where we choose how to, um, display or learning for the community and for our peers. And we also journal lot, um, on, on blogs that are specific to our projects. Um, personally I've been in the class for the three years that it has existed and I can tell you that it has probably been the most incredible part of my high school journey so far. And you are a senior, a senior.

01:52 So this is the end of your high school journey. And this is the nickname for this is e equals mc squared and incident. We've written about it but not ever had an in-depth look at one person's project. So how did you. Did you do the same project all three years or did you each year come up with a different product?

02:10 In the first year I did a project on foot pronation and that basically means that I was looking at the angle at which people's ankle hit the ground as they were walking or running, and then exploring the effects on different parts of their bodies as a result of that. So normally, um, uh, um, the ankle hits the ground at about a 90 degree angle, but, uh, due to different genetic variations, of course, different people's ankles hit the ground at different angles. And essentially what I was looking at was how that affected their joint pain.  

02:50 Um, and at what period of their life they were experiencing that joint pain. So that was kind of my entry into biological research. And why did you choose this? To be honest, I have no idea. Like you were suffering ankle pain, never actually had any joint injuries or anything like that. It was just kind of as simple and doable project that I took as my first step into the immensely large world of biological research. And how did you conduct that research? Um, so I found a group of people, uh, they weren't people from the high school because I was choosing to focus on an older population, um, and I, they were ages 20 to 30, so I went to, um, my sister actually helped me out with this. Um, she got some of her friends from college to participate in the study and um, I basically recorded a video of their, of them running on a treadmill and then I'm isolated a screenshots of, of their ankle hitting the ground and then, um, gathered the data that way.

03:57 But my real interest I've found in neurology. OK. But I want to just go finish what are the angles. So you'd like had these videos and you got screenshots at that moment of impact and you started out by saying different ethnicities have different, different genetics, different. Yeah. So we have genes, um, and basically there's a classification between genetic variation and mutations. So when we hear a lot about like, um, genetic defects, those are called mutations. Um, there's like something significantly wrong with a specific organ or system of the human body. But then when we think about, um, something called quantitative trait, Lucas, that's basically just means that there is a variation in the gene, but it's not a fatal variation and it's not something that's extremely far from the regular genomic attributes. So basically that just meant that instead of being 90 degrees, it could have been 75 degrees, so it wasn't a significant, uh, directly significant impact upon people's, um, skeletal alignment, but it was so much of an impact that it caused a leader on joint pain and I'm even upon, um, just exercise or heightened physical activity, they were experiencing some kind of joint pain.

05:23 Um, but that wasn't really the biggest lesson that I learned from that project. The biggest lesson that I learned from that project was in my response survey. So after I conducted the study of looking at the videos of how their ankles were hanging the ground, I sent them out a survey and ask them if they had joint pain. And most of the time when I was finding is that a lot of people were saying, yes, I did have joint pain, but it was because of this. And they had this definitive, um, claim of why they had their joint pain, which I found interesting because none of it was diagnosed by a doctor. They didn't just that it was significant. Yeah, exactly. So that was really the most interesting part of the results that I gathered it was that sometimes we take certain things for granted and we, we kind of just go about our daily lives and our business without thinking about the possible repercussions that certain parts of our regular lives might implicate.

06:23 So now I took you off the track. You said you found your true interest was neurobiology. And tell us a little about why. Well, when I think about research, I think a lot about possibility and how to venture into something that will keep you curious. And as you know, curiosity is in the name of our class. I'm exploring with mindful creativity and curiosity. So when I came to enter my second year of, of equals MC squared, I thought about what interests me in terms of what makes me curious, what instilled within me. I'm an unwavering desire to know more about something. And that was with the brain, um, most of it, most of the reason came from the fact that we really don't know much if anything about the brain, but we do know some things and those clues that we currently have are grounds for great possibility and great opportunity in the discipline of neuroscience.

07:21 But don't we know a lot more about the brain than we did. I mean recently, these scans that have allowed people to actually see parts of the brain functioning has changed. A lot of it has. And that's the impression that I was under two at the beginning of last year. But the more you read and the more you look at all these different studies and the questions that they raise, the more you realize that there is so little that we know and there's so much more to explore. So, um, I'll give you an example. So this year I was studying Alzheimer's disease and um, a lot of what I knew about Alzheimer's disease after studying it for several months, was that it was caused by the buildup of these proteins that instead of getting cleaned out from the brain, they would stick together, they would aggregate into these plaques that would be, um, have a negative effect upon the brain.

08:15 So I always, always under the impression that this was the only explanation for Alzheimer's disease. But then I started looking into these clinical trials about, um, different drugs that are being developed. And I started to realize, well, if these drugs that are targeting the aggregation or the buildup of these proteins have been proven effective, then maybe there's something else. So then I started exploring other theories of Alzheimer's disease. And I can tell you that it opened my eyes to such a large world of different theories and different ideas about the disease. For example, I'm sure many people are familiar with how diabetes works ourselves. When, when someone has diabetes, the cells in their body do not accept glucose or sugar as energy. Right? So this a theory about Alzheimer's disease called the oxidative stress theory, basically was saying that, well, maybe our neurons are becoming diabetic.

09:16 They're not accepting glucose as energy for for their functions that they need to carry out when they send signals to different parts of the brain. And then as a result when there's a period of inactivity of the neurons because they're not accepting that glucose, they start to decline and they start to show us the neuro degeneration that we see characteristic of Alzheimer's disease. So that's just one example. But there are so many different examples of theories that are theories. They haven't been proven entirely correct, but they do have possibilities that are rooted in significant research. And that was one thing that kind of led me to understand how we ask a lot of questions about everything. We ask questions about the heart and the brain and even things outside of our own biology. But the more that we asked questions, the less that we seek for definitive answers on.

10:13 The more that we realize that these questions lead us on a path to conclusions that not only make us want to learn more, but also gain the ability to explore these disciplines, scientific model. But how did you narrow. This is a high school student with one year to do research. What, how did you choose a path to follow and what was that path in your research? Are you talking about this year or last year? Are both years involved with Alzheimer's? Yes. OK. So tell us about last year then. Tell us about this here. OK, well, last year I kind of started with a super ambitious goal and it didn't really come to fruition, but it helped me realize a couple things. So initially I was exploring the brain was, you know, reading these articles over the summer. I was thinking about what I could possibly do within the year as you were saying, you have to narrow it down.

11:10 And I came across this article about the possible connection between autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer's disease. And I found that extremely fascinating because, um, I had seen in school, you know, we see, um, students with autism and where we go to the same classes as them, we see them in the hallways, we interact with them and then to, to kind of play with the idea that another disease that was completely different could have a possible correlation to autism. And um, the s, the whole spectrum of autism. That was a really fascinating thing to me. Well, they're both diseases have increased astronomically in the last few decades or not. But I think I'm particularly with autism that may have been attributed to the fact that it wasn't really recognized as a, as a, um, as a biological disorder of the brain. The same number of people on this spectrum half a century ago.

12:19 It just wasn't recognized that, I'm not sure if I can go so far to say that. But I definitely think that the gradual, um, decreasing on removal of such a stigma behind it may have, um, kind of revealed more about the disorder and then led to a lot more research and a lot more of a heightened ability to identify, um, the conditions. So I got you off the track again, you're reading over the summer and you read this one article that fascinated you about a possible connection between autism and Alzheimer's and w w where did you proceed connect? So I basically decided to go with it and I decided to really explore the literature and um, spent some time with it and formulate some kind of conclusion as to whether I really thought this correlation was in fact possible. So I spent most of the beginning of the year, I'm reading a lot and then I thought, well, maybe I should experience, have some firsthand experiences with people who have autism.

13:27 And, um, basically the, the biggest thing that I think had a really large impact on me was joining the club called best buddies, um, where students who are neurotypical will be a joined to a peer buddy who has a developmental disability and not only was it a really great experience this through your school and in high school. So my buddy's name is Ari and Ah, we are buddies this year also, and I can tell you that that was a really great experience, but it also, um, kind of took me further away from my previous research and trying to figure out the connection between the two conditions of the brain because going to take you off your path again because you said it was, has been a really good experiences. Tell us a little about that being our buddy. I mean, what, what's been good about? Well, the first thing I'm going to tell you is that already is an incredible person.

14:25 Um, he's extremely kind and he's always, I'm a great friend to have around, into, to be with. Um, so when I joined best buddies and I got to know already over throughout the course of the year, I really developed a friendship with him, um, but in terms of my research, it kind of felt like it was getting a lot more difficult because, you know, other, um, in the, in e equals MC squared. We're studying more immediate topics and topics that were more accessible within the school. And here I was trying to piece together all this neuroscience that I honestly really had no idea about. Um, if you think like I, prior to that point, all I had taken was in eighth grade, um, regions biology class and that didn't really provide me much background. So throughout the course of the year I definitely hit a lot of obstacles as a result of that.

15:21 Um, that was mitigated obviously by doing interviews. Um, I contacted a lot of people and ask them just, I was asking them a range of really simple questions about the brain, like how to certain parts of it work, but also really large questions. Like, do you actually think there's a possible correlation between autism and Alzheimer's disease? And these people you are interviewing or research scientists. So I'll give you an example, um, who actually gave me an internship over the summer and lend me to my word research. But before that, um, I interviewed someone named Dr Norman, um, who works at Albany Medical Center and he has a c elegans lab. Um, but we'll get to that in a little bit. And essentially as we were talking, um, through our interview, we kept on getting sidetracked to all of these sub components of the questions I was asking. And I think that interview was a really big part of understanding that yes, there are these large questions that we want to find the answers to, but maybe the reality is that before we can find those answers, we have to maybe take a step back and ask the questions that come before the smaller questions that give us certain clues that we need.

16:35 So for example, before I could ask, um, how Alzheimer's and autism were related, I had to ask, well, how does autism, how do autism and Alzheimer's affect the brain independently? So being able to narrow the big question into the necessary, um, smaller building blocks to that larger question was really important and as it was, as a result of that, that I decided in my third year of Mc this year that maybe I had to spend a little more time with the small parts of neuroscience, like c elegans, which are microscopic worms in order to make larger conclusions about the things that I wanted to study. So then you worked with Dr. Norm is that his name is Dr Norman Norman, what's his first name? Dr Kenneth. Norm Mckenneth Norman at Albany Medical Center and he's conducting research with these worms. Tell us what he's doing and how your work fits in with his.

17:37 So I'm Dr Norman and his team. They are focusing on different theories of Alzheimer's disease. So, you know, the theories that I mentioned earlier, basically they are taking some of those theories and they're testing the possibility of their accuracy in the works. So they're doing a lot of things with, um, something called locomotion assays. So the, what they do essentially is they, um, give the worms certain genetic characteristics that can replicate Alzheimer's disease or other neurodegenerative diseases of the brain and then they, they basically test the different hypotheses that people have already proposed about the disease and see if it actually holds true for the way the system works in the works. And this is doable because of the warm such as small organism and it's all been mapped genetically and for the most part, yes. And see how. But the other thing that's really cool about these arms is that they're transparent.

18:40 So when we look at them under the microscope, we can see each individual cell and what, depending on what genetic markers are put into that specific population of worms, we can see different things that are happening inside the cell. It's just very, very cool. Um, what specifically did you look at in your own project and what did you learn from it? So in my own project, I actually, I'm very, very grateful for Dr Norman and his team for allowing me and giving me the opportunity to do this. They basically taught me, you know, the baseline, um, procedures of the lab, how to um, grow the worms, how to deal with them, and then they kind of set me off and they said, you explore what you want to explore. And for me that took a little bit of narrowing down because as in my second year of MCI had the big danger of starting out with something that was too large for my own abilities.

19:40 So the thing that I landed on was glial cells and I'm glial cells are basically like Mr. clean cells of the brain. So you just spelled g, L I a l. So essentially they serve to clean out any extra proteins, any toxins that are in the brain. It's kind of like an, it's will. The glial cells are um, cellular components of a larger system called the glymphatic system. And that's exactly like the immune system, but it because the brain is separated from the rest of our bodies with, um, something called the blood brain barrier. We can't, our immune system that works in the rest of our body cannot have any role or any hand in, um, taking out toxins and giving the brain immunity from certain, um, harmful substances. So these glial cells, these Mr clean cells of the brain are specific to the nervous system and essentially, um, so let me give you an example.

20:46 So our neurons communicate by electrical impulses and every time an electrical impulse goes through the brain, it's Umm, it opens up these ion channels. And essentially that means once the, um, electrical impulse passes, if you have an exchange of substances, so that can be sodium with potassium, it can be calcium and magnesium. There are several things that when the electrical impulse is not passing through state inside the neuron and things that say outside the neuron, but once that impulse passes through from the beginning of the neuron to the end of the neuron, you have an exchange of those substances. Sometimes, however, those substances that are being produced or not produced correctly. For example, like I told you about the amyloid hypothesis, which states that the amyloid proteins are being produced incorrectly, which means instead of being able to be cleared by these glial cells, they're actually produced with these sticky ends that will aggregate into a plaque and then, uh, that prohibits the glial cells from being able to clear them out of the brain.

21:55 And when you imagine kind of like if you had to neurons and you put some, it's um, let me think of an example. So if this to these two microphones in front of us, if we put them to be attached to each other, um, and then we sent out, we turned them on and then there was obviously electricity going through them, but then we put something over the mouthpieces of the microphones and we prohibited them from Bruce from receiving our voices and therefore I'm transmitting, transmitting them. Then those microphones, you'd be considered non-functional, right? So in the same way, when you have two neurons that are connected by the electrical impulse that passes through them and you have a plaque that's forming on top of that connection, it disables the connection. And as a result, if the cells, the neurons are not functioning, then they start to degenerate.

23:00 And the other thing that puts our brains in the most conundrum of the situation is that we are neurons do not divide by my Tosas, which means they can't create new neurons. So the neurons that we have in our brains is it their lifetime endowments. So when we have those plaques that are sitting on the connections between our neurons, then the degeneration that happens causes us to lose, completely lose the function and the structure of those neurons that we have, one of each single one, each single neuron. So that, that's a big, a big thing about Alzheimer's that, um, is really difficult because we can talk about medications that can pause or stop the disease. But that doesn't mean that any damage that has already been done will be reversed.

23:58 So when you finished your, your project, are you something as you go forward in your life, this is something you're now passionate about and you're going to continue to pursue? Or what are your immediate plans for next year? I will be attending Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in the fall. Um, and I do hope to continue my research, um, be mostly because I'm really curious about it and this study of elegance and the cells inside of such a small organism has been really eye opening in terms of being able to find value in things that we might not always find value in. I mean, if you think about a study that is done on a human brain or a larger organism than, than c elegans, you can immediately find value in it because it seems like it's more directly related to the impact that it can have on people who, um, are affected by the disease.

25:01 Whether it's, um, a family member or just someone that they know. But then we see these worms and we consider them in consequential and as though they have no real purpose in the world of biological research. But the reality that I came to find and understand is that yes, they are insignificant, but that doesn't mean they're not important because we can try to test drugs on, you know, I'm human, but we don't know what those drugs, what effects those drugs will have upon the humans that we're testing them on. We have to take it a step further, actually several steps further and test them on something small and then explore those smaller organisms because they can give us a clue as to how it works in humans. So I'll give you an example. Last year I was really focusing on making conclusions about the human level of, of these disorders and about the brain.

26:00 But then this year I had to really think about whether all those givens that we had assumed when we're thinking about the human nervous system, we're actually true. And that ability to question something on a larger scale leads us to a smaller scale in order to confirm those assumptions. So it's not necessarily a matter of being able to test medications or certain procedures on the smaller organisms, but it's really for the sheer fact of do we really know what we think we know just extending the frontiers of knowledge as opposed to finding a specific solution to a problem is exactly because you can't find the solution to the problem if you don't completely understand the problem. And I know that over the centuries of scientific investigations that have been discoveries that weren't recognized until generations later that had a practical application. But I just wondering with the School of Pharmacy, why you made that choice?

27:00 What do you hope to pursue their? Um, well, there are many options in pharmacy. Um, I could work in drug development, um, which would be like testing all those, um, different medications. But to be honest, um, I had kind of planned to, um, pursue medicine and um, that didn't really end up working out in terms of my college process. But I think going into the pharmacy school and being exposed to those classes anyway and being able to. Because I think there are many similarities between medicine and pharmacy, um, being able to kind of figure out what I really wanted to do, um, having that option available to me is still really important. Yeah, I mean there's a lot of experimentation for drugs that are going on in schools that are like veterinary schools and you know, other places besides just medical schools. But as you look back because you're just so passionate about learning, I think it's wonderful. As you look back at your school career, um, I think you called it a journey. What, like what stands out for you? Or maybe there's several as milestones or particular teachers or particular other than the equal and see squares, programs that kind of shaped you into this inquisitive and articulate person that you are. I just think that would be interesting to hear.

28:31 That's a hard one because I've had wonderful teachers throughout my entire career, but I can tell you about my fourth grade teacher, Mrs Mclean. Um, and it was in that fourth grade class when, um, we were actually preparing for the New York state science exam and um, we were doing a lot of the science stuff and I was really confused as to what science really was. And I would, I would, you know, go through all these exercises and do these practices for the exam. And I would ask her, I would say, well, is this science like, is this what the scientists that are big people that are adults? Is this what they do? And the biggest thing that she pushed me towards was asking questions and being able to understand that science is not a thing. It's not something to be attained. But rather it's a process by which to improve not only your breadth of knowledge but also your approach to everything.

29:31 So I can definitely tell you that by learning to ask more questions and not only helped me to be better at science and to gain more knowledge in that discipline, but also to be able to get to know people and to be able to show an interest and curiosity in what other people like to do and what other people are passionate about because I think everything, and this was actually something that I only realized recently through my time at emc. Everything that we do in every experience that we pursue should serve to make us better people because at the end when all is said and done, you know, my paper on c elegans isn't going to be that significant. The facts alone in solitude will not have a great significance on who I am as a person because those are just facts. Those are things that without bringing them to life and giving them a true, meaningful purpose that improves you as a person will have no meaning in the future.

30:35 So I definitely, I definitely probably started my science, um, obsession in fourth grade with Miss Mclean. But it's always been this gradual process of understanding a certain thing, grasping a concept, whether it be in science or I'm like several of my peers are studying these incredible things. Um, my friend still mostly by studying dreams, dreams, dreams, and their effect on waking life. I'm Alex. Gigi, M has conducted this incredible exploration of, of humanity and morality and what it means to be. I'm a good person in this world. And he delved into all of these different focus. He's such as, um, religion. And is it possible to have a secular morality? I'm Noah Greenberg. He is studying the science of stand-up comedy. And it was while being exposed to all of these different topics and all of these different people that had different passions that I realized we weren't all so different as we might have thought we were.

31:44 You know, I can say that studying stand up comedy seems very different than looking for the roots of Alzheimer's. But exactly which is, which is the impression that anybody would be under, at the beginning of such an endeavor. But then you start to realize that we aren't just studying all of these disciplines in isolation or simply just to learn facts or to memorize a certain repertoire of information. We're studying all of these things because that's our own way of becoming better people and we're all on this path and on this journey to causing positive aspect as a result of our studies. Um, and I think that goes a lot of credit must be given to the coordinators of our class. Mr Bott, Mrs Jurgensen. I'm Benjamin goes, who is, um, kind of a research consultant or volunteer that helps us out a lot in emc and they all have their own interests and I'm pretty sure nobody really cares about worms anyway, but they, because we're all different people and because we all bring that personal background and experience to the table when we conduct our research and when we are in this class, we all pushed each other to find meaning.

33:03 That is universal. And do your colleagues share the same level of passion that you have for their work? If not the same, definitely more than I do. Goodness. Well, how does this fit in with your family? Are they also passionate about the work they do? What, what? Like what do your parents do for. While? My mom is a technology teacher at the Middle School and my dad is a priest. I'm at the Orthodox Church. I'm in downtown Albany and um, my sister is actually, she also goes to Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and she's um, been doing clinical research and, and um, published, um, actually she's going to speak at a conference a couple of weeks. I'm on the work that she's published. Um, my brother is currently in, um, in a joint, a bachelor of science in um, medical doctor degree program. Um, so I think being a part of this family and being able to see, um, you know, my parents do what they love and, and have a significant impact on their respective communities and my siblings also.

34:09 Um, I'm the youngest of three. My siblings, you know, follow their passion and pursue the path that really interests them has really shown me that you can do something but you can do it with passion and those are two very, very different things and once you are able to attain that passion or attain something that you are passionate about, you know, the sky's the limit. And I'm actually, I'm working on a presentation right now for the capital region steam expo. I'm consuming science, technology, engineering and math for our listeners who are from our stamina added the art. Yes. Yes. And as I'm thinking about this presentation or thinking about what's the biggest lesson that I've learned, I think it's that, you know, we might look at a crowd of people or when we think about the grand scheme of things, we might think that we are small or that the role that we play in whatever capacity that we live is not a significant part of the community that we're a part of or the world in general.

35:16 But the fact is, and I like, I'm honestly, I'm still having trouble being able to fathom it. If a worm that is microscopic, that is transparent, that is practically invisible, has the ability to move science forward and literally provide incredible insights as to what is going on and an entire human being who is comprised of cells and organs and all of these complex biological connections. Then how is it that we, who are those entire human beings can consider a sentence without a role and without a purpose in those larger contexts. And I just, I just find it so important to be able to take all that I've learned and while every single piece of it has been really significant in my life and really important to me being able to take all of that in, sum it up into one really big lesson that can be proclaimed and, and spoken to, spoken about to other people because this actually came up in our library day.

36:21 Um, we had a panel discussion and we were fielding questions from the audience. And one of the questions was how has this class taught you about things like gratitude and giving back? And the first thing that came to mind for me was that, well, we aren't just pushed to learn things for the sake of learning. We aren't simply seeking, you know, um, academic prestige or, or anything that is solely within ourselves. We are taught and we are pushed and we are challenged to go outside of our own selves and be able to carry all of those lessons to the larger community and to, to, um, basically just extend the implications of our work and our knowledge and our research to others around us because, you know, keeping all the knowledge to yourself won't do any good, but when we are able to give back and be able to appreciate that this knowledge isn't just what it's materials, material or substance, if pieces, um, it's not just comprised by the substance of pieces, then we are able to realize that there are so many implications and so many lessons to be learned from those journeys that should be shared with the community around us.

37:34 And that is a perfect and note that will carry us forward. Thank you so much. Thank you. My pleasure.

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