After spending over a decade in the concert industry touring with bands like The Toadies and Reverend Horton Heat as a tour manager and guitar technician, Texas native Wes Solem felt an overwhelming desire to challenge himself to find a new path — a path he found at Western doing neurodegenerative disease research.
Now, the senior Behavioral Neuroscience and Molecular Cell Biology major has been awarded a $4,000 stipend for the Donald A. King Summer Fellowship that will sponsor his 10-week research project studying Huntington’s disease.
Every year, the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA) sponsors research projects for college students looking to pursue work related to neurodegenerative diseases. Looking for an opportunity to do important research, Solem sent in a proposal and was one of four students across the country to win the fellowship.
“I’m extremely excited and honored that the research proposal for this project was chosen out of a nationwide pool of applicants,” he said. “The award will really allow me to buckle down and do research full time.”
The ambitious fellowship intends to attract scientists to a career in neurodegenerative disease research as well as provide support for future projects. Prior to applying, Solem had already been involved with Huntington’s disease (HD) research through Assistant Professor of Psychology Jeff Carroll’s lab.
Carroll suggested Solem apply, and oversaw the proposal process. Having applied for the fellowship for other projects through Carroll Lab before, both were excited to hear Solem will be able to carry out his plan of study.
“It’s a very competitive application, usually awarded to trainees at institutions dedicated only to research,” Carroll said. “The fact that Wes got the award is a credit to him, and to the increasing visibility of WWU as a place to do important research.”
Huntington’s is a fatal and hereditary disease, caused by a mutation within the huntingtin gene. It is classically characterized as a neurodegenerative disease, but is not confined to the brain, therefore neither are the toxic effects of the gene mutation.
Carroll’s lab work focuses on understanding symptoms of HD through the whole body using a genetic mouse model. His unique interest in the disease began after he tested positive for the HD mutation in 2003, meaning it is inevitable he will be affected by Huntington’s during his lifetime unless a cure is found.
The basis of Solem’s project involves knocking out the huntingtin gene in adipose (fat) tissue.
“We are particularly interested in seeing if this adipose tissue-specific knockout will result in any abnormalities or characteristics that resemble those of mice modeling HD,” he said. “Our goal is to contribute to the understanding of whole-body signs by further unraveling huntingtin’s role in the periphery.”
Solem said the project had a few rough starts, but was finally able to get moving during the proposal process. He got started with the study in September and said he’s glad the work is aligning perfectly with the summer fellowship.
Solem’s connection to HD began two years ago when he first took a Behavioral Neuroscience course and found he had a passion for investigating the mysteries of the brain. His professor, Jeff Cantle, put him in contact with Carroll, and Solem has been working in the lab since.
Last summer, Solem helped conduct a months-long study using homemade operant boxes (a conditioning chamber used to study animal behavior) instead of commercial operant boxes that go for thousands of dollars.
“We put together these plastic buckets that have open-source hardware that are a lot cheaper, but accomplish the same outcome as commercial operant boxes,” Solem said. “Using those, we were able to see a difference in the mice that were modeling Huntington’s Disease compared to mice that were not.”
The study resulted in a paper published in Nature research journal’s Scientific Reports, Solem’s first ever achievement as a contributing author.
While Solem enjoys doing HD research, he isn’t quite sure what he wants to do in the future.
“I’ve been hovering around genetic counseling,” Solem said. “It appears to link my academic interests with my desire to help others, in part by making complicated concepts more clearly communicated and understandable for the general public.”
Solem recently found out he has received a one-week genetic counseling internship at Northwestern University in Chicago this July. In his ideal world, he said he would figure out a way to balance his interests in genetic counseling and neurodegenerative disease research.
“When I made my decision to leave the world of touring a few years ago, I had no idea I would be doing the kinds of things I’m doing now,” Solem said. “I am incredibly grateful for these opportunities.”
Photo courtesy Jeff Cantle