GEM fellowship awarded to computational biology doctoral student studying neurodegenerative diseases

Author: Deanna Csomo Ferrell

As Isabella Gimon’s grandmother’s health and memory deteriorated from Alzheimer’s disease, her family members discovered they grew in patience and kindness as they learned about the disease and witnessed her continued decline.

Isabella Gimon

As a computational biology graduate student, however, Gimon hopes she can be part of finding therapies for the disease, even if they are many years away.

Gimon studies protein aggregation, which occurs when proteins cluster in an abnormal way, often making them insoluble and potentially leading to a variety of diseases, including ALS and Alzheimer’s. But she and others in the lab of Santiago Schnell, the William K. Warren Foundation Dean of the College of Science and a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, complete their research not in a wet lab, but in front of computers, using theory. 

“I can explore a vast array of reaction mechanisms and manipulate parameters that would be far more difficult to do in an experiment in a lab, but this helps other scientists do these experiments,” she said. “They can see things more clearly, and decide what questions they need to ask.”

Gimon earned a fellowship for her graduate studies from The National GEM Consortium, a nonprofit organization founded at the University of Notre Dame in 1976 to support highly qualified students from underrepresented communities who are pursuing graduate studies in applied science and engineering. A 2021 graduate of Florida International University with a degree in biology and minors in computer science and chemistry, she completed summer undergraduate research at Yale University School of Medicine and held an apprenticeship in quantitative methods at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While researching the possibility of attending Notre Dame for her doctoral degree, Schnell’s research caught her eye. 

“I saw that he did similar research that I was interested in, but because he’s the dean, I didn’t know if he was accepting students or what that would look like,” she said. “Thankfully, after I had a meeting with him, I found out he was very open to accepting one or two students, and that was awesome.”

The aggregation process can occur in different ways, one of which is through the primary structure of a protein, where mutations can lead to changes in amino acids sequence. These mutations alter the architecture of proteins so the protein will not function as it should, and when these proteins form aggregates, they can cause problems in many neurodegenerative diseases. Gimon primarily studies protein aggregation in those diseases, but other conditions are also affected by protein aggregation, including diabetes and cancer.

While laboratory experiments are imperative, starting with a theoretical approach often helps because it can be too difficult to explore all options in vivo, Gimon said.

In her second year as a graduate student at Notre Dame, Gimon is leaning toward going into industry after graduation, but she is open to all options. She said she feels there is an aspect of scientific research that involves cultivating virtue, and making sure that scientists understand why they are doing their research—which, in Gimon’s mind, means doing it for the greater good of humanity.

“I think sometimes there is a feeling that research is done solely for ‘my glory and fame,’ and, I mean, there’s so much more than that,” she said.

Schnell said he is impressed with Gimon’s drive and passion for computational biology, and they share the feeling that science should be practiced with an eye toward faith.

“Isabella is an excellent researcher, but also has not forgotten that scientific understanding is connected to the larger picture of the purpose of life. Science cannot explain everything in the universe.

“Science can help you to be a better Catholic,” he continued. “By studying nature and its laws, we have the opportunity to participate and show forth the beauty of God, who created them.”

In fact, that’s one reason Gimon decided to attend Notre Dame for graduate studies.

“I’ve always said there’s no way I could be a good scientist if I’m not a good person first,” she said. “I’m a Catholic. And I know that in Notre Dame, I could pursue good research conducted with some incredible scientists, but also grow to be a better citizen in a society through my faith.”