Student Works to Help Lou Gehrig’s Disease Patients

McDermott Scholar Spends Summer Assisting Research Team in Ireland

Jul. 29, 2010

An undergraduate neuroscience major has spent the summer with researchers in Ireland seeking a way to slow the progression of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Elizabeth Hanacik, a sophomore and a McDermott Scholar, was part of a team working on a treatment for the fatal neurological disorder through Ireland’s Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.

Hanacik landed the position and had many of her expenses covered by the College’s Summer Program in Undergraduate Research on Neuroscience (SPUR-ON) for interdisciplinary, cutting-edge neuroscience research. Science Foundation Ireland’s Undergraduate Research Experience and Knowledge Award (UREKA) funds the students’ internships.

As ALS progresses, motor neurons of the spinal cord, brainstem and motor cortex degenerate over time, resulting in paralysis. Hanacik spent 10 weeks working with laboratory models and testing a potentially therapeutic remedy using specialized cells that exhibit the disease characteristics of ALS. The current project, which continues beyond Hanacik’s internship, is expected to be complete in six months.

She also interacted with fellow research interns in the SPUR-ON program through discussions about research relevant to team projects, group lectures and tutorials on how to present research. The summer internships wrapped up with a mini-symposium, in which the students presented their work and findings.

“Working with an international group of students has been very meaningful for me because it has opened my eyes to various ways of thinking about research and broadened my perspective of neuroscience,” she said. “I learned a great deal about how to carry out good research, and I got a better idea of what I want to do with my professional career.”

Hanacik’s time on the Emerald Isle wasn’t all work, however. During weekends, she explored Dublin and the surrounding area extensively.

“My favorite non-research experience was spending a weekend biking and hiking through Killarney National Park, in the southwest part of Ireland,” noted Hanacik. “It was absolutely beautiful.”

Hanacik credits the rigorous academic preparation she received at UT Dallas, as well as lab experience, for her successful application to the UREKA program.

“UT Dallas has prepared me for this experience on a basic level by offering me a solid education in my science courses thus far,” said Hanacik. “Also, my previous research experience in Dr. [Michael] Kilgard’s neuroscience lab has been very valuable.

“This is a great university for undergraduates who want to go into research, because the research faculty is more than willing to have undergrads working in their labs.”

Hanacik is the third UT Dallas student to participate in the UREKA program. Poornima Hanumara (BSTE ’10) and Steven Horne (BS ’09), participated in the program during the summer of 2008.

Hanacik, Hanumara and Horne were nominated for the program by Austin Cunningham, a physicist and UT Dallas’ dean of graduate studies, who sees the UREKA program as an excellent preparation for students wanting to continue studies after receiving a bachelor’s degree.  

“By working in laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art research tools, an undergraduate research assistant can gain valuable skills unattainable in undergraduate laboratories,” Cunningham said. “They also learn how to work as a member of a research group working in common cause.

“When the experience is gained off-campus in an out-of-country setting it promotes the sharing of ideas, experiences and challenges and stimulates reflections, understanding and collaborations of mutual benefit.”


Media Contact: Karah Womack, UT Dallas, (972) 883-5890, karah.hosek@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu
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Elizabeth Hanacik

Elizabeth Hanacik pauses along the River Liffey in Dublin. In addition to working on an international research team, Hanacik explored the culture and history of Ireland during her 10-week summer internship.

Elizabeth Hanacik

Hanacik also hiked the Wicklow Mountains, south of Dublin. She said the biggest adjustment to her daily schedule was to walk “a couple of hours.” Hanacik found that Dublin residents travel in automobiles much less than people who live in North Texas.

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