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So many questions, never enough time for Carlin scholar

Gianna Fote


Gianna Fote had always considered water polo a hobby. She played in high school, then continued with the sport on club teams during her undergraduate years at Yale and as an MD/PhD student in the UCI School of Medicine.

Then, the neuroscience researcher took blows to the head that resulted in the first two concussions of her lifetime. That’s when her hobby collided with her career.

“I kept trying to live a normal life, to maintain the long hours and hectic schedule,’ she says. “But, I was just not able to sustain my normal high level of activity.”

Fortunately for Fote, her energy returned in about a month. The only lingering effect was her participation in a groundbreaking UCI study of head blows in water polo.

“This opened up huge opportunities for me looking at concussion research. It’s been a really interesting journey for me,” she says.

Fote joined a research team comprised of individuals from the UCI Schools of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Engineering. Their study tracked several dozen male collegiate water polo players over three seasons, mapping out the frequency of head blows, then identifying which positions are most vulnerable to injury. Fote was listed as an author on the report of findings, which published in May 2019 in the scientific journal PLOS One.

Gianna Water Polo“The water polo project was sort of a fun and fruitful side project,” says Fote. “I’m now concluding my involvement to focus on my PhD thesis project.”

As the concussion study winds down, Fote is rededicating efforts to the neuroscience research that initially drew her to UCI. She was attracted by the inter-departmental neuroscience research opportunities she would have as an applicant to the UCI Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) , a National Institutes of Health-supported MD/PhD program. After touring Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, and talking with Leslie Thompson, PhD, and Mathew Blurton-Jones, PhD, Fote was hooked. She has since completed two years of medical school and is currently doing doctoral research in the lab of Thompson and Joan Steffan, PhD.

“Leslie and Joan have worked side-by-side as co-PI’s (principle investigators) for decades. I’ve had good luck of stepping into the middle of that collaboration,” says Fote. “They are mentors I can grow from technically and intellectually.”

In turn, Steffan is impressed by Fote’s potential.

Working with Gianna, we have observed how dedicated, hard-working, brilliant and determined she is to go forward as an academic physician/scientist to accomplish great scientific work relevant to the neurobiology of aging” says Steffan.

Fote studies autophagy, one of the processes that clears the waste that may accumulate in brain cells over an individual’s lifetime. This process may be defective in diseases in which misfolded proteins accumulate in the brain, such as Alzheimer’s Disease or Huntington’s disease. Her study explores how or if Apolipoprotein E (APOE) and the Huntingtin protein contribute to autophagy, and whether mutations that cause Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s impair those autophagic functions.

The study is atypical. In Alzheimer’s, particularly, it is more common for researchers to study the potential relationship between amyloid plaques and the disease. If Fote finds that the proteins do have a role in autophagy, and that loss of autophagy can contribute to disease, the knowledge could ultimately lead to novel therapeutic strategies that improve the quality of life for millions.

Fote received funding for her work as the 2018 Dr. Lorna Carlin Scholar, an annual award that is given to an exceptional doctoral student who is conducting a translational research study.

“It’s been difficult to get funding because this hypothesis is cutting edge,” says Fote. “The Carlin award gives us time and resources to produce the extra data we might need to apply for grants. It has been a critical resource to move us forward.”

The next step for Fote is to study how APOE is degraded and whether an autophagic mechanism in involved. She expects to have findings to report within a year. From there, she is on course to defend her PhD thesis, then complete the medical school curriculum. After that, it’s on to a neurology residency, followed by fellowship, possibly in neurogenetics.

“The beauty of being a scientist in an academic environment is that you have the academic freedom to pursue new ideas that you find fascinating,” says Fote. “That said, I can see my current research carrying me through a lifetime. One question leads to others; there is so much to be discovered.”