Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Helene Tran

Helene Tran, PhD is a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Fen-Biao Gao’s laboratory in the Department of Neurology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA. She was awarded The ALS Association’s Milton Safenowitz Post-Doctoral Fellowship for ALS Research in 2012. This award supported her research project that focuses on how the most common genetic anomaly identified in ALS patients triggers the disease using the simple fruit fly as a model organism. The results from this project were recently featured in the September 23 issue of Neuron. Recently, we sat down with Helene to learn more about her exciting research project and to get to know the person behind the science.

What has the support from The ALS Association meant to you?
When I received the email that I got the fellowship I was super excited and happy! It is a big deal getting this award from The ALS Association. It was so encouraging and definitely helped me to successfully achieve my research project.

Do you have a message for the donors who helped make your most recent project possible?
A big thank you, because without the money this project would not have been possible. None of the money went to waste! Not only did the money buy my own supplies but it gave me the freedom to try several ideas– which is super important for a young scientist like me.

Do you think the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has inspired more scientists to investigate ALS?
Yes, it made a huge difference in increasing ALS awareness. When people poured a bucket of ice on their head they wanted to know why and sought out information about the disease. I also noticed that more and more researchers have been attending ALS meetings and have recently joined the field because of this enormous awareness that also includes all the available research dollars that were raised by the challenge.

How can we attract more dedicated researchers such as yourself to pursue ALS research?
By continuing to openly communicate about what ALS is, how devastating it is to people living with the disease, and how exciting and important research is to help find a treatment or cure. It is also important to create and foster a collaborative research environment for students and fellows where we can work side by side with top ALS researchers and share our ideas.

What is your academic background?
I grew up in Paris and attended the University of Paris Diderot-Paris 7 and University of Lille. I then went on to complete my Masters degree at Imperial College in London and then my PhD at the University of Lille in France.

How did you get involved in ALS research?
While studying for my Masters in London, I discovered neuroscience and studied learning and memory. I loved understanding the biology behind such an abstract concept, like the connections that neurons make to each other. I also find disease-based research more attractive than basic science, so I decided to study the neurobiology of Myotonic Dystrophy during my PhD. For my postdoctoral fellowship, I continued on that track and moved into ALS research. While I am working, I feel like if I could even make a small discovery in ALS it would be so exciting to potentially make a difference in patients’ lives.

What do you like most about the ALS field of study?
It is exciting to explore all the different pathways that have the potential to cause ALS. There is so much to learn!

What challenges you the most in the lab?
Putting all those pieces together is the most challenging. Sometimes, biology has its own logic that might not be yours. Research needs time, so it can be frustrating.

What qualities make for a good scientist?
Someone who is passionate and curious about research. Someone who is creative, honest, humble, and open-minded to any possible solution. It is also important to be very thorough and accurate, since a little change in how you carry out an experiment can make a big difference in its results.

What do you like most and least about research?
I like putting the pieces of my project together. It is like solving a puzzle everyday. Sometimes it is frustrating to figure out how to fit the pieces together. Things rarely work how I expect them to and it takes time to troubleshoot and figure things out. It is a long process.

What are you most passionate about in research?
I like the logic and the thinking process. I also enjoy learning new basic concepts and new techniques and technologies to utilize in my project.

In layman’s terms, please give me some highlights from your most recent paper featured in Neuron. (Congrats on your paper!)
We used the simple fruit fly, in which we introduced the most common genetic anomaly causing ALS, to better understand how it triggers the disease. We found that the intermediate RNA species that are found abnormally aggregated in patients are actually unexpectedly harmless in fly and in mouse. Instead, the major source of toxicity in fly is the final product: a mutant protein that is not expressed in healthy individuals. Therefore, preventing its production could be a therapeutic target.

What else do you think is exciting in ALS research? What are the bright spots on the horizon?
Technologies for reading DNA are developing at an exponential rate. They are not only faster and cheaper than before but also more accurate and sensitive, which will incredibly accelerate the discovery of new ALS genetic anomalies. It is also so exciting how quickly the field has made progress in understanding the C9orf72 mutation (from 2011 to now). Discoveries in C9 biomarkers have been made, which help scientists understand whether the clinical trials are working or not.

Is there a mentor that stands out to you?
Several people have truly helped and inspired me. I am grateful for my PhD supervisor, Nicolas Sergeant, for sharing his knowledge, teaching me the job of a scientist and always being supportive. My postdoc advisor, Fen-Biao Gao, who supported and encouraged me, especially when things in the lab were not working. Robert Brown, for being so open to discuss and advise on my future. Finally, Lucie Bruijn for encouraging young scientists through the Milton Safenowitz program and her incredible job of putting patients, companies and scientists together – not an easy task but essential to find a cure.

Who are your heroes?
I admire people for their courage, especially people going through a tough time and find the courage to stand up and fight back. For example, my colleague was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to undergo major surgery for treatment. Not only did he recover, but he is back in the lab working normally. Simply amazing!

What do you do for fun?
I am a mom. I have a 2-year old son and love spending time with him and my husband. I also love spending time with my family and friends in France and the UK.

If you could have dinner with someone alive or dead, who would that be?
Aung San Suu Kyi, the prominent Burmese political prisoner and advocate.

Any hidden talents? Which talent would you like to have?
I enjoy sewing for my son, niece, and nephew. I also have played the piano since I was 8 years old. I wish I could improvise on the piano and sing along at the same time. I have a terrible voice and break the ears of my husband when I sing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Sitting in a café in Paris with my husband and son eating a chocolate croissant.

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