Home-Grown Skills Spur Neuroscience Research

Christopher Minasi’s undergraduate research may help scientists combat Huntington’s Disease, a devastating neurological disorder that results in progressive loss of speech, thinking, reasoning, and motor coordination.

He worked under the supervision of Jianning Wei, Ph.D., associate professor in the Biomedical Sciences Department, investigating one of the possible underlying mechanisms of the disease. In normal brain cells, tiny structures called lysosomes digest worn-out particles throughout the cell. In Huntington’s Disease, the lysosomes clump together, indicative of functional defects. It is an inherited disorder caused by a faulty gene that manufactures a mutant, overly sticky protein. Wei’s lab studies the role the mutant protein plays in clumping the lysosomes together.

Using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool, Christopher developed a line of cells that lacked the gene altogether. He then used a special microscope that produces high-resolution photographs to compare these cells against those that occur in nature. His findings backed Wei’s hypothesis that the mutant protein, called huntingtin, contributes to the abnormal clumping.

“Christopher worked as an independent researcher under my supervision,” said Wei. “He conducted the experiment, analyzed the data and presented the work at an undergraduate symposium. This novel cellular model should help us better understand the function of huntingtin in protein trafficking.”

Christopher might have used sophisticated equipment at FAU, but the fundamental tools behind his research lay at home. When he and his brother, Daniel, were in elementary school, their mother left her engineering job at Motorola to home-school them. It was the most difficult decision Eloisa Minasi had ever made, but it paid off when both boys got into FAU High School — a public school that transitions rising sophomores to the University for three years of undergraduate study. There Christopher and Daniel earned 3.9-plus averages and won FAU’s Presidential Award. Daniel, who is 17 years old, is currently in his third year in electrical engineering, and Christopher recently received his BA in neuroscience at the age of 18.

Christopher is well aware of the benefits his mother’s tutelage gave him. “Home schooling definitely had an effect on my attitudes and work habits,” he said. “My mother was very thorough in creating a personalized and well-rounded curriculum for me. She also pushed me to develop one very important skill: the capacity to self-learn. That was the single most important ability I used to succeed in college.”

Now Christopher is heading to Harvard, where he plans on earning a Ph.D. in neuroscience. He’s received a $35,000 research stipend, a relocation package and will take graduate courses at no cost.

And Eloisa? The FAU alumna is back in the engineering field, designing communications systems for the Department of Defense. Her husband, also an engineer, designs Lidar systems for self-driving cars. Both happily give professional advice to students who are interested in engineering, although Eloisa has taken down her home-schooling shingle.

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 Last Modified 9/24/18