The Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools awarded University at Buffalo student Alexandra Keller the NAGS Master's Thesis Award for 2012-13.
Keller, who received her master's degree in pharmacology and toxicology from the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences this past February, recently accepted the $1,000 award at the annual member's award luncheon in New Brunswick, N.J.
Each year, NAGS recognizes an outstanding master's thesis among students whose schools are members of the organization.
Keller's thesis, titled "Direct Reprogramming of Neural Stem Cells into Oligodendrocyte Progenitors by Defined Factors," was submitted by the council, which reviews and selects UB's nomination for NAGS. Only one nomination from each school is allowed.
"I was very flattered and honored just to be chosen as UB's nomination. I was even more surprised and awed to have been chosen as the best thesis in the northeast region," Keller said.
NAGS gives its award in science once every three years.
Keller worked closely with Fraser J. Sim, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UB Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, to understand oligodendrocyte cell development in the human brain and how transcriptional regulation contributes to diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
In his letter of recommendation for Keller's thesis award, Sim said, "It was a pleasure to have Alexa in my lab as both an undergraduate researcher and subsequently as a BS/MS student from 2010-12. Alexa's thesis work was an ambitious project."
Sim also said that Keller's thesis forms part of a manuscript, which he intends to submit to a top-tier journal later this year.
"This research could impact not just people and their families suffering from MS, but a whole host of neurodegenerative diseases, and pave the way for therapy to a presently incurable disease," Keller said.
Keller explained that, in MS, which is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system, a protective nerve covering called the myelin sheath is composed of oligodendrocytes that surround the nerve fibers of the brain and spinal cord. When oligodendrocytes become damaged, demyelination or scarring can occur. As a result of demyelination, messages from the brain and spinal cord are blocked, leading to reduced or lost bodily function.
"The process of this degradation is poorly understood. In Dr. Sim's lab, I was provided an opportunity to be able to experiment with primary neural stem cells - which are very precious and rare," Keller said.
"By manipulating and studying these neural stem cells and their cell lineages, we were able to pinpoint which genes control oligodendrocyte development in the human central nervous system, and we hope that this will lead to novel approaches to induce oligodendrocyte repair in the brains of patients with MS."
Keller has been accepted into the Pharm.D. program in the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, but she won't forget what she has learned in Sim's lab.
"Dr. Sim has taught me how to think like a researcher and to ponder the scientific world around me," she said. "His direction, advice and patience throughout my thesis project were invaluable to my success. With high expectations to meet, it motivated me to do a better job and work harder to earn his respect, and because of that I have a thesis project that I am proud of."