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Planting the Seeds for Future Alzheimer’s Research

At Alzheimer's Fast Track, BrightFocus Helps Shape the Next Generation of Science

Fast Track Workshop
During a conversation break, Alz Fast Track faculty member G. William Rebeck (Georgetown), left, puts a challenging question to attendees.

BrightFocus Alzheimer's Fast Track

“BrightFocus organizes and sponsors the three-day Alzheimer’s Fast Track® to help accelerate the quality of research and career trajectories of junior investigators. The workshop is an invaluable service and resource for the entire Alzheimer’s research community. Attendees learn about the latest research results across many different disciplines from prominent experts in those fields, with the goal of enabling investigators to incorporate those ideas into their own research, and propose innovative, game-changing ideas. The networking that happens between speakers and workshop attendees has, in a number of cases, led to fruitful collaborations.”

Diane Bovenkamp, PhD, Vice President, Scientific Affairs

How do you know what you don’t know? It’s an age-old problem that haunts experts in any field, particularly those searching for new solutions. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review the most recent global financial crisis was caused, in part, by this.

We cannot allow this to hamper progress in the Alzheimer’s field.

BrightFocus, through its Alzheimer’s Disease Research (ADR) program, is helping to confront that problem with its Alzheimer’s Fast Track® workshop. Held every other year in advance of a major neuroscience meeting, Alzheimer's Fast Track brings together 50-75 scientists just starting out in the Alzheimer’s field, mostly PhD candidates and post-docs who have been handpicked by their lab directors and faculty advisors.

The group spends three days with a top-flight faculty of experienced researchers and clinicians, gaining an interdisciplinary look at the Alzheimer’s research – where real progress is being made, where potential new treatments lie, what’s still critical to get to the next stage, and where the knowledge gaps still exist. [Read an overview of the 2016 BrightFocus Alzheimer’s Fast Track faculty and program in PDF format.]

BrightFocus Exploring Nerve Cell Damage and Loss in Mind and Sight

What do Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, and glaucoma have in common? They all feature nerve cell damage and loss (also called neurodegeneration), which can ultimately lead to dementia or loss of vision. To encourage worldwide collaborative research on these neurodegenerative diseases, BrightFocus will sponsor a day-long satellite workshop on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, as part of the 13th International Conference on Alzheimer’s & Parkinson’s Diseases (AD/PD 2017) in Vienna, Austria, next year (conference takes place from March 29 to April 2, 2017).

The workshop, called “Common Features of Neurodegenerative Diseases: Exploring the Brain-Eye Connection and Beyond,” will feature speakers who are preeminent experts in research on all three diseases, and is co-chaired by BrightFocus Alzheimer’s Degeneration Research and National Glaucoma Research Scientific Review Committee members, Guojun Bu, PhD (Mayo Jacksonville); Todd Golde, PhD (U Fla); and Adriana Di Polo, PhD (U Montreal).

For more information, visit the satellite workshop website at or look for additional details to appear soon on the BrightFocus website.

GIVE AND TAKE: Attendees take part in a Q/A session.
GIVE AND TAKE: Attendees take part in a Q/A session.
For individuals who are just starting out in the field, it’s an invaluable learning opportunity. After each high-caliber presentation, you see their minds light up with important research questions they’d like to pursue on their own.

The goal, from BrightFocus’ perspective, is to nurture a new and emerging cadre of neuroscientists to accelerate discoveries leading to new treatments and cures for Alzheimer’s disease.

“What we need in the field is sustainability… and sustainability is something you do not get from retired people,” explains Harry Steinbusch, who started Alzheimer's Fast Track 14 years ago.

“We need to encourage innovative thinking, new challenges, and the best ideas.”

As professor of cellular neuroscience at Maastricht University, the Netherlands, and director of the European Graduate School of Neuroscience, Steinbusch has thus far guided 76 PhD students towards their careers in neuroscience.

Inspired by Science and Creativity

“I always look forward to the Alzheimer’s Fast Track Workshop because it allows me three full days to let my brain breathe, absorb and assimilate without having to worry about deadlines, funding, and all of the other things that often distract us from the actual beauty and thrill of science,” says Cindy Lemere, PhD, who is one of Alzheimer's Fast Track’s three co-chairs (along with Steinbusch and Frank LaFerla, PhD).

Lemere is an associate professor at Harvard and a member of the BrightFocus ADR Scientific Review Committee. A hands-on researcher, she had the opportunity to start her own lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital some 20 years ago and now, at mid-career, has been associated with major discoveries and publications in the field. All this time, she also has been mentoring students and preparing them to walk in her shoes. It makes her all the more appreciative of what Alzheimer's Fast Track is achieving.

WHO WILL BE THE ONE TO DEFEAT ALZHEIMER’S? Attendees leave the workshop inspired about doing Alzheimer’s research.
WHO WILL BE THE ONE TO DEFEAT ALZHEIMER’S? Attendees leave the workshop inspired about doing Alzheimer’s research.
“Year after year, I am so impressed with the high caliber and quality of students and faculty that participate, and this year was no exception,” she said. “From the very first evening, there were lively discussions and networking all around the room.”

Alzheimer's Fast Track helps researchers further define and articulate their own areas of expertise and collaborate with a diverse array of scientists. Attendees spend several hours brainstorming, networking, and collaborating in small groups to design, write, and present their own grant proposals.

Over the workshop’s three days, Lemere found herself “inspired by the science presented and the creativity of the students.” “Participants were fully engaged and really seemed to enjoy the program,” she observed.

“I am very appreciative to the BrightFocus Foundation for their outstanding organization of this workshop, and for allowing me to participate.”

At center, Alzheimer's Fast Track Co-chairs Harry Steinbusch, Cynthia Lemere, and Frank LaFerla, surrounded by BrightFocus Scientific Programs Grants Manager Kara Summers, far left, and VP of Scientific Affairs Diane Bovenkamp, far right.
At center, Alzheimer's Fast Track Co-chairs Harry Steinbusch, Cynthia Lemere, and Frank LaFerla, surrounded by BrightFocus Scientific Programs Grants Manager Kara Summers, far left, and VP of Scientific Affairs Diane Bovenkamp, far right.

Besides Lemere and Steinbusch, Alzheimer's Fast Track’s third co-chair is Frank LaFerla, PhD, dean of the University of California-Irvine School of Biological Sciences.  As someone near the top of the academic hierarchy, he knows the challenges of recruiting and retaining a top-notch research team.

LaFerla knows firsthand that a researcher must be inspired by the journey toward scientific discovery. While he is now serving as a dean, he began his career in the lab working on early mouse models of Alzheimer’s.  In addition to his current leadership role, he is using an ADR grant to investigate factors linking diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

Keeping Inspiration and Learning Alive

For junior investigators, Alzheimer's Fast Track opens a window and provides a view of what direction their future research might take, not to mention what they still have to learn, and the help they’ll need getting there.

Based on the success of this model, BrightFocus is planning similar workshops as satellites to other major scientific meetings. [See article below.]

Speaking of the attendees at Alzheimer's Fast Track, Steinbusch said, “for three days they receive quick, fast information about the newest things in the field. And then they go – with their backpack – to the Society for Neuroscience meeting, and they spread it all around there, their ideas and their inspiration!”

Steinbusch hopes that Alzheimer's Fast Track sparks enthusiasm and creativity, including, “to question what is the idea, how difficult is it, why should I do it?”

Alzheimer's Fast Track helps new Alzheimer’s researchers discover what they still don’t know, laying the foundation for a promising next generation of science.

Other Ways BrightFocus Is Growing Talent in the Field

Among all this year’s Alzheimer's Fast Track participants, the group pictured here won highest marks for their winning proposal to study “Vascular Contributions to AD.” While the check is not real, the honor is, as reflected by the judges laudatory remarks!

FAKE CHECK, REAL HONOR: Alzheimer's Fast Track participants receive hands-on training in writing grants, and this group got highest marks and a mock “check” to fund their winning proposal to study “Vascular Contributions to AD.” The check may be fake, but the honor is real! Shown with BrightFocus VP of Scientific Affairs Diane Bovenkamp, PhD (at left), the top-scoring group included (in alphabetical order, not all shown here): James Breitenbucher (Dart Neuroscience); Mohammad Haft-Javaherian (Cornell); Madeline Lynch (Sunnybrook/U Toronto); Madeline Walpert (U Cambridge and University College London); Danielle Weber-Adrian (Sunnybrook/U Toronto); and Xiao-wen Yu (Northwestern). 

As the final part of this year’s Alzheimer's Fast Track workshop a $500,000 check was presented to a group of young investigators who came up with a winning proposal to investigate the vascular contributions to Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

The check was fake and the proposal was mock. However, the work that went into it, and the faculty’s recognition of its quality, relevance, and potential competitiveness in the world of Alzheimer’s research, were real.

The awards ceremony that ends each Alzheimer's Fast Track workshop is the culmination of hours of work that participants do interactively. On the first day, they’re assigned to small groups and receive a topic to pursue in a mock grant proposal. All the proposals are presented to the workshop attendees and faculty on the last day.

For some students, it’s the first time they’ve been asked to “sell” their ideas to a room full of stakeholders. Yet in today’s world, skills like these are essential to survive in the research setting. Besides encouraging and helping workshop participants to ask the right questions, Alzheimer's Fast Track provides hands-on training in compiling the right kind of interdisciplinary expertise needed to get the project done, writing the proposal and drafting a realistic budget, and “selling” the idea, including presentation skills.

COLLABORATION IN ACTION: In a work session, attendees concentrate on their grant proposal.
COLLABORATION IN ACTION: In a work session, attendees concentrate on their grant proposal.

Most scientists working in academic research environments need these skills to survive. That’s especially true for junior investigators who are just starting out in the Alzheimer’s field—the exact kind of researcher that many ADR grants go to support.

“Basically, the older your are, the more experienced you are, the easier it will be to get grants because as you progress in the field, you acquire sufficient staff to provide the pilot data to write better grants,” says Alzheimer's Fast Track’s creator, Harry Steinbusch, PhD, of Maastricht University, the Netherlands. Fourteen years ago he started the program with other European counterparts in the Alzheimer’s field, and a decade ago he exported the idea to BrightFocus leaders.

[Coming soon: Our interview with Dr. Steinbusch about how he’s collaborating with BrightFocus on possible new directions for the Alzheimer’s Fast Track workshop.]

BrightFocus now takes the lead in organizing Alzheimer's Fast Track. Plans are afoot to create an alumni network connecting BrightFocus grantees and previous Alzheimer's Fast Track participants. In addition, BrightFocus leadership is exploring the possibility of replicating Alzheimer's Fast Track – in conjunction with related scientific meetings.

And BrightFocus is advancing the knowledge, opportunities, and careers of the next generation of researchers in additional ways. We have sponsored travel grants that make it possible for worthy young investigators to attend major meetings to present their work. On a case-by-case basis, BrightFocus has sponsored poster sessions or provided general support to science meetings in need of sponsors, because those are other ways to support collaboration and cross-fertilization of ideas in the field. In addition, BrightFocus is organizing and sponsoring a workshop at the upcoming AD/PD 2017 conference in Vienna (see more details in the story above).

Because we support innovative thinking and reward extraordinary ideas, BrightFocus frequently is in a position to be the first nonprofit research organization to award a grant to a talented investigator. These investments have resulted in numerous success stories, and an astounding return on the contributions made by our donors.

That said, however, BrightFocus does not want to be the one to fund a researcher’s last grant. Instead, the hope is that the individuals who receive early BrightFocus funding will go on to great success as teachers, mentors, and scientists, the next generation of researchers who will lead us to treatments and cures for diseases of mind and sight.

To quote an old proverb: Give a person a fish and you feed someone for a day. Teach a person to fish and you feed someone for a lifetime.

That’s the goal, and these are some of the ways BrightFocus is making it happen.

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This content was first posted on: December 15, 2016

The information provided in this section is a public service of BrightFocus Foundation, and should not in any way substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional, and is not intended to constitute medical advice. Although we take efforts to keep the medical information on our website updated, we cannot guarantee that the information on our website reflects the most up-to-date research. Please consult your physician for personalized medical advice; all medications and supplements should only be taken under medical supervision. BrightFocus Foundation does not endorse any medical product or therapy.

Some of the content in this section is adapted from other sources, which are clearly identified within each individual item of information.

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