(Editor’s note: Each month since May, the WVU Alumni Magazine online features a woman who has made her career in science or related field at the University. They each have a different, fascinating story to tell about how they’re contributing to human knowledge. Miranda Reed’s story can also be found in the spring 2012 edition. Visit the site to find monthly updates on A Year of Women in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.)
In the cold city of Minneapolis, Minn., Miranda Reed met with veterans in the winter of their lives.
She would test their memory to gauge how much of themselves they had retained against the steady march of Alzheimer’s disease.
The men were fine, they would say. They could manage. They didn’t forget too much.
But then Reed would turn to their wives and hear the real story. The patients were fine because keys were hidden, Post-It notes were in place and pills were lined up.
With a freshly printed Ph.D., Reed began to see in her postdoctoral work at the Veterans Affairs health care system how much time Alzheimer’s took from caregivers, the inevitable decline in patients and the fear of an illness that can strike even the healthiest.
“I think the fact that so many of the cases are unexplained and there’s no known risk factor for so many of the cases that that’s really scary to people; even if you try to be really good and you try to do everything you can, knowing it’s still a possibility is terrifying,” Reed said.
Reed has taken that experience to heart. Now an assistant professor at West Virginia University in the Department of Psychology, she is doing everything she can to prevent the illness in herself and anyone she knows through recommending exercise and a healthy diet: things that have proven themselves in studies to decrease the risk of memory loss.
But she also wants to influence the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s for everyone by mapping how the disease behaves in mice.
If you pass by Reed’s office door down a hallway in the Life Sciences Building, you’ll see a simple printed sign that says, “Reed Memorial: Home for Forgetful Mice.” Down a side hallway is her behavioral science lab where the forgetful mice show off their memorization skills until they begin to miss a step here and a step there and eventually can’t remember any of their tasks.
The mice in Reed’s lab have a gene that makes them likely to develop Alzheimer’s. But Reed isn’t only looking at the memory illness, she’s looking at how it behaves with another prevalent illness: diabetes. Both are common in those beyond their 60s. And if a patient has both, then Alzheimer’s medications may be more effective if they were designed for the twin illnesses of age.
Reed is just as interested in developing preventative techniques. Yet she knows that this doesn’t always have the desired effect. Her own parents don’t always listen to her advice.
“My dad still won’t exercise,” she said.
The need for Reed’s work has rarely been as pressing. As Baby Boomers age, the number of those with the disease is expected to triple or quadruple, increasing suffering and the costs of care and treatment.
As the incidence of diabetes increases, too, she says it could be that the estimates for Alzheimer’s occurrence won’t be high enough.
But decades ago the blonde scientist with the hearty laugh wasn’t thinking about how she would cure anything. Reed grew up in Caddo, Ala., a small town outside of Decatur where you played sports or applied yourself in school to keep busy.
“I grew up in a really, really small town,” she said. “It was a dry county. There was no movie theater, no bowling alley, most people had farm area.”
No one in her family had chosen a science career, and she was the first to graduate college. But her high school had advanced placement classes, and she liked the science fairs.
“I don’t know why I liked it so much,” she says of science. “My parents tended to read a lot of books that were mystery-based like the ones about Kay Scarpetta, a forensic psychologist.”
Her idea then of a scientist was less of psychologists going into schools and hospitals to gather behavioral data than it was of chemists at benches with beakers and flames.
“Science is not as beaker-filled as I thought it was when I was younger,” she said.
She found herself always wondering about diseases, how they developed, why treatments worked, why they didn’t.
“You have a question,” she said. “You can come up with several hypotheses, and no matter how good you research those, it almost never works out the same as you would have predicted. But it almost always leads you into something new.”
She knows of women who didn’t choose the path she did because of the perceived choice between family and career. She didn’t see it that way. If she chooses to have children, she knows she’ll handle both home and work.
But she does remember a time when she didn’t know about assistantships that paid for graduate school and might have been deterred because of the cost. Knowing that she could find a way to finance her education made the difference between getting here and not. It also helped that nobody ever told her she couldn’t become a scientist.
“I was very lucky in having mentors who really made everything seem possible, that I could do both, that I could pursue this area and make it. I was very lucky.”
By Diana Mazzella
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