Growing up in Botswana and Zimbabwe, Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa did not see science as a career option. Fast forward a few years: Nathasia is studying Parkinson’s disease as part of her PhD at the LCSB at the University of Luxembourg, and has co-founded a STEM initiative that was featured in Forbes.
Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative brain disorder. An estimated 7-10 million people are affected worldwide – this number is likely to rise significantly in the next years due to an ageing population.
Luxembourg is highly active in many fields of Parkinson’s disease research. Nathasia’s PhD project, part of the FNR PRIDE PARK-QC Doctoral Training Unit, focuses on understanding the changes that occur in the brain during Parkinson’s disease prior to the loss of dopaminergic neurons, the specific type of brain cell affected and lost as Parkinson’s progresses.
“It is likely that changes in neuronal connections occur long before they start to die, and may explain why Parkinson’s patients experience non-motor symptoms such as depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances before the classical motor features associated with the disease are observed,” Nathasia explains.
3D brain organoid models to better understand brain disorders
Ageing is the biggest risk factor for Parkinson’s disease. In an effort to gain insight on exactly what role ageing plays, Nathasia uses both neural stem cells, as well as 3D brain organoid models derived from Parkinson’s patients:
“The organoid models are able to recapitulate key features of the disorder on the molecular level. The Developmental and Cellular Biology group, the group I am in, has the unifying goal of using these advances stem cell based models in order to understand various aspects of Parkinson’s disease, with the hope of coming up with new therapeutic targets and interventions.”
Nathasia explains that one of the biggest challenges in understanding Parkinson’s disease is there are currently no animal or cellular models that can accurately model and reflect the adult human brain.
“Although brain organoids are an incredible tool for dissecting the molecular mechanisms underlying genetic disorders, they are more representative of the developing human brain. However, the research I am currently working on aims to establish whether we could improve our model by finding ways to induce aging within the organoids.
“Not only is this important for the understanding of Parkinson’s, but also other adult onset disorders like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease. With the rise in the global aging population, massive efforts must be put into understanding aging and how it drives these disorders, due to the high socio-economic burden associated with them.”
“I fell in love with being in the laboratory”
As it is true for many scientists, Nathasia has always had an affinity for the sciences. The idea to perform research and specifically study Parkinson’s disease developed during Nathasia’s University days:
“When I had the opportunity to perform my own research project during my Bachelor’s I fell in love with being in the laboratory. I enjoyed the whole process of conducting research – defining a problem, establishing gaps in the field, strategizing the best experiments to carry out to address the problem, analyzing data after performing experiments.
After that, doing a Master’s that was biomedical research focused further amplified my desire to pursue research. Somewhere along the line I gained a passion for stem cell biology and neuroscience, and maybe it was serendipity but I honestly found a PhD position perfectly aligned with my interests and here I am in Luxembourg!”
Being selected for the PhD position at the LCSB at the University of Luxembourg was one of the most memorable moments of her life, Nathasia explains.
“Growing up in Botswana and Zimbabwe, I never thought I could actually pursue scientific research as a career, because it was never really presented to me as a viable career option.”
A passion for STEM visibility and accessibility
Not having any visible role models in science growing up, Nathasia was inspired to change this for future generations: she co-founded an online initiative called Visibility STEM Africa.
“The initiative aims to give visibility to Africans involved in STEM fields in order to provide visible role models for the next generation of Africans interested in pursuing STEM careers.
“So far the response to the initiative has been incredible, highlighting that there is a serious gap related to the representation of Africans in STEM fields. I had the honour to be interviewed and featured in Forbes, detailing my motivation to start the initiative and what we hope to achieve.”
Having only started her PhD a year ago, Nathasia is not yet sure whether she will stay in research after her PhD, as she is also enticed by science communication:
“On one hand, I would definitely be keen to pursue a postdoc and get to continue to work on a cool research project in the lab and add my contributions to the growing body of knowledge in my field.
“However, I have a very deep interest in science communication and science advocacy, particularly in making science more accessible to all demographics. What I am sure about is I will be contributing to science in some way, whether at the bench, or through lending my voice to important issues in science (or both).”
Role model: Katherine Johnson
“I would like to acknowledge Katherine Johnson who just passed away. She was a Mathematician and Physicist who worked for NASA and was instrumental in calculating trajectories critical to the success of crewed spaceflights, including the mission to the moon. She broke barriers for women and people of colour at a time where they were highly excluded from spaces relating to STEM fields. She has such an incredible story and I encourage everyone to look her up if you don’t know about her journey.”
About Spotlight on Young Researchers
Spotlight on Young Researchers is an FNR initiative to highlight early career researchers across the world who have a connection to Luxembourg. The campaign is now in its 5th year, with 60+ researchers already featured. Discover more young researcher stories below.