Valerie Ivancic holds up a device in a chemistry lab

Graduate student seeks to unfold mysteries of Alzheimer’s, diabetes

February 20, 2017

Most people don’t lump together Alzheimer’s disease and Type 2 diabetes, but the two degenerative diseases share a common trait at the molecular level: the presence of misfolded proteins that aggregate and form amyloids.

Because Alzheimer’s and Type 2 diabetes, when added together, affect almost 30 million Americans, scientists are interested in understanding more about the misfolding of amyloid proteins, which form insoluble fibril deposits in organs and tissues.

At Clark University, Valerie Ivancic (pictured at top), a doctoral candidate in biochemistry, is committed to combating these diseases.

“Alzheimer's and diabetes affect so many lives,” Ivancic says. “I aspire to be a part of the solution for diseases that have such catastrophic consequences.”

Noel Lazo
Noel Lazo, associate
professor, Carlson
School of Chemistry
and Biochemistry

Originally from Amesbury, Massachusetts, Ivancic conducts research in the laboratory of Noel Lazo, associate professor in the Carlson School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The group focuses on protein misfolding and aggregation, which occurs in Alzheimer’s and Type 2 diabetes.

Normal proteins are three-dimensional, intricately folded molecules involved in almost all cellular processes. But misfolding of these molecular structures can result in a wide range of diseases.

“Our group’s research specifically looks for ways of detecting misfolded proteins that form amyloid fibrils, and we are trying to develop methods for inhibiting aggregation of misfolded proteins,” Ivancic explains.

In one of her projects, she uses Clark’s nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer to monitor the interactions between small-molecule detectors and amyloid fibrils and to better understand the fibril structure.

“My most recent publication, in ChemPhysChem, is titled ‘Binding Modes of Thioflavin T on the Surface of Amyloid Fibrils by NMR,’ which details our finding that the detector molecule thioflavin T binds to insulin and lysozyme fibrils differently,” she says “This information could possibly be used in innovative ways for detecting amyloid diseases at earlier stages, allowing for quicker treatment.”

Ivancic entered Clark after graduating in 2013 from Bridgewater State University with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and concentration in biochemistry.

Below, she elaborates on her experience as a doctoral student here.

Why did you choose Clark for graduate school?

Clark is unique because it combines the strong research typically found at larger universities with the perks of small classes where you can really connect with the professor. This balance is very important to me. I wanted the ability to focus on impactful research while still being able to help inspire the upcoming chemistry and biochemistry students.

What do you like best about being a graduate student at Clark? 

Clark has an amazing community. As a teaching assistant in the labs for “Introductory Chemistry” and “Biochemistry,” I have made great connections and learned so many new things from our wonderfully diverse student body. Additionally, the staff have been incredibly kind and supportive, and I have forged some great new friendships. 

Is there a professor who mentors or inspires you?

The professors in my department are a constant source of inspiration, so it's hard to select any one specifically. However, I feel compelled to acknowledge my principal investigator, Professor Noel Lazo, who has coached me from the beginning and pushed me to be as independent as possible. 

Why is your research important to you? 

There is so much we do not yet understand about protein misfolding diseases, but they affect a significant percentage of the population. These conditions desperately need our attention, and our group is determined to look for solutions in naturally occurring molecules.  

Has anything you’ve discovered during your research surprised or interested you?

It's all interesting! On a daily basis, I encounter experiments that yield surprising results. That's the fun of research — finding something new and exploring it to get a better understanding. 

What do you hope to do after you graduate from Clark? 

I am determined to bring my expertise to industry. My ultimate career goal is to work for a pharmaceutical lab and conduct research on preventing and treating uncured diseases. I have a particular interest in several Boston pharmaceutical companies, which I have had the privilege of touring with the Younger Chemists Committee, a national organization for early-career professionals in chemistry.

How has Clark helped prepare you for your next endeavor?

Clark University has outstanding partnerships inside and outside the campus that have allowed me to stretch the limits of my work. In addition to the generous resources in my own department, my collaboration with UMass Medical School has provided me with training for mass spectrometry and transition electron microscopy. Additionally, my partnership with Professor Donald Spratt has given me invaluable experience with protein expression and purification. These skills are crucial for my eventual transition to industry.