Aaron Gitler

My laboratory researches neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease. Recently, our main focus has been on ALS, a motor neuron disease that is also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s a devastating disease caused by neurons that innervate muscles. When these neurons are lost, it causes muscle weakness, then paralysis, and ultimately death—almost always from respiratory failure. The disease is very aggressive, with death usually two to five years after onset. In the last five years, there’s been an explosion in the genetic understanding of the disease. My lab tries to identify the function of genes that are known to cause ALS when mutated as well as discover new genes that can cause ALS. We study budding yeast, mouse models, and cells from patients.

I became interested in research in college. I went to graduate school and did my PhD in developmental biology, so I studied how the heart forms. When I applied to my post-doctoral fellowship, I thought I would go into developmental biology. By chance, I heard a talk by Susan Lindquist, and I knew I wanted to work in her lab. She was working on protein mis-folding, and I learned I wanted to be in this environment. It turns out the neurodegenerative diseases have, at the molecular basis, a lot to do with mis-folded proteins. At the time, a new ALS protein was identified. I decided I would study that, and we’ve been busy every since.

I’ve been very fortunate to have been given opportunities that I’ve taken advantage of. I was the first student in my PI’s lab, and I learned so much from him. He recruited me as a professor, giving me an opportunity, and it motivated me to prove myself. As a result, I also try to give opportunities to the students that work in my lab.