Human communication

Who we are: Grace Hala’ufia


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From the lights of Drachman Stadium to microscopes in the University of Arizona’s neurobiology lab, female track and field pitcher Grace Hala’ufia represents the “A” in more ways than one.

In addition to training and competing as a discus thrower and shot putter, Grace Hala’ufia spends much of her time working as a student researcher in the Optimizing Access to Research Careers program. (MARC) of the university.

As an undergraduate researcher, Hala’ufia is working on an individual project that ultimately fits into the larger-scale work of her lab, which studies the molecular mechanisms that contribute to the development of neurodegenerative disorders such as ALS, Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia. .

Hala’ufia’s individual work focuses on developing what is called a “behavioral test” or assessment that measures levels of aggression in pairs of male flies. His lab has worked on genetically engineering small flies to express human disease proteins that are known to cause degeneration and death in patients with ALS and FTD. This work is being done with the aim of providing a way to identify genes, cell pathways, and drugs that may reduce the effects of these diseases.

This area of ​​research is difficult for any undergraduate student, but adding to a student-athlete’s demanding training and competition schedules makes it even more impressive for Hala’ufia.

“The good thing about my current role in the lab is that I can come as needed based on the needs of my flies and my lab mates,” Hala’ufia said. “As a result, I often have training in the morning, classes in the afternoon, and time in the evening to go to the lab and maintain the fly stocks. After homework, I also make sure to set aside time for data analysis work. “

With the track season starting in January and ending in May, in addition to fall training throughout the first semester, it’s hard to imagine a student-athlete having time to devote to a project. of research. Nonetheless, Hala’ufia finds a way to balance all of her responsibilities, believing that the key is communication.

“Balancing study, athleticism and lab work can be very difficult, one area often taking priority over others,” Hala’ufia said. “However, it is not impossible. One strategy that is not talked about enough in terms of balancing the various responsibilities of life is communication. I have learned that being open with my coaches, my lab colleagues and my teachers allow flexibility in a seemingly rigid and demanding schedule. Whenever another part of my life requires more attention, I try to let the right people know about my situation and they are always there. understanding and adapt accordingly.

Having support plays a big role in being able to successfully undertake ambitious endeavors like Hala’ufia. She works closely with Dr. Daniela Zarnescu, professor of molecular and cellular biology and neuroscience who oversees the laboratory.

“Grace is an excellent student,” said Dr Zarnescu. “Her main project is to study aggression, a well-established behavioral problem in FTD patients. With the help of Dr. Shaun Davis of the Schlenke Lab, she performed images and analyzes of FTD flies and the first results are promising. She is able to gracefully juggle her academic endeavors with her athletic activities and laboratory research. She has the curiosity, motivation and talent to become an accomplished researcher and it is a pleasure to work with a also talented student.

After earning her undergraduate degree, Hala’ufia plans to attend graduate school and earn a PhD in Neurobiology in hopes of eventually leading her own lab that will continue to work on a better understanding of the biological formation of disorders. neurological. She would also like to be a teacher.

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