By Bethany Augliere
When Cristina Fenollar Ferrer, Ph.D., watched her grandmother suffer with cancer as a child, she said she knew she wanted to pursue a career in science to find cures for diseases.
Fenollar Ferrer, a native of Spain, a research associate professor, is doing just that — searching for new clues to brain disorders including depression, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and how to treat them.
Her journey to FAU began with earning a doctorate in chemistry from the University of the Ballaeric Islands in Spain before pursuing postdoctoral training in protein molecular modeling and dynamics at the International School of Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, as well as at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysics in Frankfurt, Germany, and the National Institutes of Health, United States.
“I’m just a scientist that comes from a modest family,” she said. “As a child in Majorca, Spain, I always dreamed about finding new cures for diseases once I was grown up, without knowing what being a scientist really meant.”
Fenollar Ferrer is the first faculty hire facilitated by a $1 million gift from the Palm Health Foundation to establish a program in computational brain science and
health at FAU. Currently, her research focuses on trying to understand how membrane transporters, dynamic proteins that allow the passage of specific molecules into and out of brain cells, are constructed and how they change shape to carry out their role. In some people with ADHD or autism, for example, transporter proteins have been found to be mutated and malfunctioning. “These transporter proteins are like doors that control what enters and exits the cell,” she said. “If you want to know why a door is stuck, first, you have to know how the door normally opens and closes. At the level of a molecule, understanding the movements of the doors takes powerful computational approaches to define what we cannot see.”
Fenollar Ferrer said with a better understanding of the inner workings of transporters, and how transporters work with other proteins, she could understand how subtle mutations can impose drastic changes in brain function, and these insights can allow for the design of new and better medications, “built intentionally to open doors,” she said.
Fenollar Ferrer will pursue her computational neuroscience research in the new Stiles- Nicholson Brain Institute building on the FAU Jupiter campus.