Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month we travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, to chat with Samantha Brecht, associate scientist, AbbVie Foundational Neuroscience Center.
Once upon time, in a body of water not so far away, Sam Brecht relished competitive rowing. With true grit, determination, and a whole lot of heart (and muscle), she paddled her way to some major victories. Nowadays, with feet firmly planted back on the ground, she’s intent on achieving strokes of genius in the uncharted waters of neuroscience.
Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.
I am an intensely curious person and have always been fascinated by the natural world. One of my first science romances was with a book called "The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians." Filled with colorful photos to help with specimen identification and an index of fabulously dry text descriptions, I picked up my first copy at our local library at the age of four. Much to my parent’s chagrin, I insisted on reading it as my bedtime story for the better part of the next two years and would listen intently, enraptured by every morsel. By the time my parents tried to pry it from my hands to return it, the book was stained with cranberry juice and other ‘love’ marks so they were forced to purchase a new copy for the library. To this day, my treasured copy sits atop my bookshelf, adorned with its library sticker on the jacket. Ultimately, my ambling curiosity has continued to shape my love of science. And to this day, I continue to fall in love with science over and over again!
You work in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at AbbVie’s Foundational Neuroscience Center. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what exactly it is that you do?
I do exploratory work in one of the earliest stages of medicine development, identifying potential targets for future medicines to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. These diseases, which affect the central nervous system and brain, are difficult to study in humans partly because brains are not very accessible for observation. In addition, these diseases take a long time to develop – often over multiple decades – and are difficult to reliably predict or diagnose precisely. I am tasked with developing ways to study aspects of these neural diseases in a laboratory-type setting, the primary way being with cells in a dish. In my experiments, I test whether treatments on cells produce significant changes in a measurable outcome that is relevant to Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. For example, one hallmark of Alzheimer’s Disease is the development of clumps of protein called tau aggregates. In my cells, I can design an experiment where I test different therapies to see which ones change the size or number of tau aggregates in cells, as well as monitor cell health to identify therapies that may be toxic. Carefully designed cell-based experiments allow me to rapidly generate a lot of high-quality evidence (data), which ultimately enables us to make more informed, strategic decisions and hopefully (eventually) contribute to the development of successful medicines.