For most people, flies are a household nuisance. But Ryan Schutte has found a greater purpose for the little buzzers. They‚Äôre helping him uncover clues to a severe form of childhood epilepsy.
Schutte, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in UC Irvine‚Äôs Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology working in the laboratories of Diane O‚ÄôDowd and Martin Smith, is using fruit flies to model fever-induced seizures similar to those seen in Dravet syndrome.
The insects have been genetically modified to carry a mutation that causes Dravet syndrome in humans, and they allow Schutte to study how these mutations affect communication among brain cells. In collaboration with postdoctoral fellow Lei Sun, he‚Äôs discovered that cell membrane channels key to nerve cell signaling open more slowly and close more quickly in the brains of Dravet flies.
Many children with Dravet syndrome experience not only violent seizures but also poor development of language and motor skills, hyperactivity and difficulty relating to others. Furthermore, Dravet seizures are often not well controlled with classic anti-epileptic drugs. With the new fly model of Dravet seizures, Schutte and Sun are now screening novel compounds to treat this and similar forms of epilepsy.
It‚Äôs important work, and Schutte‚Äôs research and dedication have earned him a 2012-13 UCI/Stanley Behrens Public Impact Fellowship. This is the fifth year that UC Irvine‚Äôs Graduate Division has awarded $10,000 Public Impact Fellowships and the first year that two students meeting specific criteria have each received a $20,000 UCI/Stanley Behrens Public Impact Fellowship.
‚ÄúRyan has tremendous potential as a researcher,‚ÄĚ says Smith, professor of anatomy & neurobiology. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs smart, incredibly hardworking and enthusiastic ‚Äď a person who sees only good things happening. That‚Äôs just the temperament one needs to be a scientist.‚ÄĚ
Schutte‚Äôs research acumen grew from a family environment that encouraged scientific study. His parents both work in healthcare, and he was drawn to science fairs and courses from a young age. So when Schutte finished high school in 2003 and enrolled at UC Irvine, it wasn‚Äôt surprising that he pursued a bachelor‚Äôs degree in biological sciences.
‚ÄúI really like the program here,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúIt has a great range of classes and was a great fit for me.‚ÄĚ
After graduating in 2007, Schutte moved into UC Irvine‚Äôs doctoral program in cellular & molecular biosciences, and he works with the research groups headed by Smith and O‚ÄôDowd, professor and chair of developmental & cell biology.
For the past five years, Schutte has been a teaching assistant in O‚ÄôDowd‚Äôs large freshman biology class, Bio 93, and in 2011 he received an Edward A. Steinhaus Memorial Award, evidence of his outstanding performance.
‚ÄúRyan is a fabulous graduate student,‚ÄĚ says O‚ÄôDowd. ‚ÄúHe does a great job balancing his commitment to rigorous research in the lab and the education of our undergraduates in both the classroom and the lab.‚ÄĚ
Currently, Schutte is mentoring three undergrads ‚Äď Jacqueline Algara, Eden Barragan and Neema Hariri ‚Äď working on the fly project in O‚ÄôDowd‚Äôs lab.
He‚Äôs set to receive his Ph.D. in December, after which he‚Äôll secure a postdoctoral research position, continuing the hard work that leads to tomorrow‚Äôs medical breakthroughs.
‚ÄúPeople have asked me why I enjoy research, and a big part of it is the possibility that discoveries we make could improve someone‚Äôs life in the future,‚ÄĚ Schutte says.