Three scientists at the FAU Brain Institute are working on cutting-edge research that might change the world. And they’re only 19 years old. Earning bachelor’s degrees while in high school, Sarah Palumbo, Maximilian Rabil and Nadia Sial became some of the nation’s youngest medical students when they were accepted into the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine last year as the inaugural class of the FAU High School M.D. Direct pipeline program. But, they’re experiencing life as researchers first.
Palumbo is researching genetics of opioid use disorder in the lab of Janet Robishaw, Ph.D., senior associate dean of research and chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences. “We’re generating and testing a list of genetic variants associated with opioid addiction,” Palumbo says. “The ultimate goal is to develop a personalized approach to treating pain, by studying a person’s genetic makeup to assess more easily and accurately their risk of developing opioid use disorder.”
Palumbo’s passions include pediatrics and teaching. “It’s not only about treating this generation with my own medicine and abilities as a physician, but also teaching my method to others in the future,” she said
Rabil is testing how neurotransmitter transporter proteins contribute to brain disorders like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, in the lab of Randy D. Blakely, Ph.D., executive director of the FAU Brain Institute.
“I’m looking at the molecular underpinnings of ADHD using a genetically engineered mouse where control of the brain chemical dopamine has been altered,” Rabil says. “Previous lab results have shown that these mice are more impulsive than normal mice. I am now using iPad-like devices, which the mice touch with their noses to get a reward, to determine how easy it is for them to learn new behaviors and change old habits.”
Rabil says his path to mind and medicine started after he became curious about a seizure he had at the age of four. By fifth grade, he knew he wanted to be a neurosurgeon.
Sial is studying the effects of oxidative stress associated with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, in the lab of Ken Dawson-Scully, Ph.D., associate vice president for strategic initiatives and head of institutional partnerships for FAU and the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience.
“I look at the mechanisms of neuronal communication using fruit fly larva. I dissect the larva to expose the neuromuscular junction, the area where the motor neurons connect and basically talk to each other,” she says. “Ultimately, the goal is to determine the mechanism by which the brain may reduce the effects of oxidative stress.”
Sial’s studies may one day lead to medications that can reduce the effects of stroke and contribute to healthier aging.
The three young scientists agree: they’re grateful to be part of this inaugural program.