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Parisa Vaziri

Parisa Vaziri

Age: 18
Hometown: Richardson, TX

Science: “The Neuro-Protective Role of FOXO in a PINK1 Loss-of-Function Based Model of Neurodegeneration in Drosophila melanogaster”

About Parisa

My name is Parisa Vaziri, and I am an 18-year-old neuroscience researcher from Plano, Texas. For college, I will be attending Yale University, and I will be majoring in neuroscience with a focus on computational applications.

Aside from the science itself, I really enjoy using my TikTok platform to get younger kids into STEM. When the pandemic hit, I made a TikTok video about transforming my bathroom into a makeshift neuroscience lab, which went viral, gaining over one million views and giving me a significant amount of influence. I enjoy answering my followers’ questions on how to get into research and find what inspires them.

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"Being a Davidson Fellow is extremely meaningful to me because it shows me that the research that I’m conducting has the potential of having a large impact on the future, which gives me the confidence and determination to continue my work, as I understand that this is only the beginning."

Project Description

Nowadays, people are living longer than they ever have before, but with this increased longevity comes a plethora of negative consequences, such as neurodegeneration. Luckily for us, scientists have recently postulated that the overexpression of the FOXO gene in humans can have anti-aging effects, and fruit flies have this same FOXO gene in their own bodies.

To see if FOXO could prevent this ill fate of neurodegeneration, I formed two groups of fruit flies as models: one group was plainly predisposed to neurodegeneration, and the other group was predisposed to neurodegeneration while overexpressing FOXO at the same time. I found that this group overexpressing FOXO had significantly healthier neurons, three times better motor function, and a 50% increased lifespan, all despite the fact that they were predisposed to neurodegeneration.

From this, I conclude that FOXO protects the brain against the degenerative factor of aging, which introduces gene therapy as a possible solution to notoriously unsolvable diseases.

Deeper Dive

My inspiration to conduct this research project stems all the way back to early elementary school. One of my favorite shows to watch was Nova ScienceNow with Neil deGrasse Tyson. As fate would have it, one of the most intriguing episodes to me featured people in their 90’s that had somehow barely aged. It was beyond ludicrous to my adolescent mind. How could the 90-year-old man on the TV screen sprint faster than me, and why was his hair less grayed than my father’s? The scientists on the episode postulated that this phenomenon had something to do with the FOXO gene, and ever since then, I have wanted to explore this for myself. Another piece of inspiration for this project came a bit later in life. It’s hard watching my parents grow older, and it’s even more difficult wondering how aging will impact them. Relatives on my mother’s side have had diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer; however, relatives on my father’s side have lived extraordinarily long lives, my great grandpa living past 120 years old! Perplexed with this stark contrast in aging processes and motivation to prevent the negative aspects, my path for this scientific journey was made clear. Some people like to pointedly claim that fruit fly research has no significance to them, citing the fact that “insects aren’t humans.” While that is very true indeed, applicability is not measured on morphology, but rather genetic similarities. Because the genes used in this project have a high degree of homology between both species, what is learned with the fly can be applied to the human. Right now, we can look at a person’s genome and say “you’re predisposed to neurodegeneration, sorry,” but what this project allows us to do is say “you’re predisposed to neurodegeneration, here is a possible solution through gene therapy.” In order to end these notoriously unsolvable diseases, gene therapy developers need to conduct experimentation to ensure that the promotion of human FOXO has these protective effects in humans.

Once I realized that everything would be closed for a very long time, I adapted and improvised to the situation to ensure that my research could successfully continue. After some negotiating with my parents, we decided I could have one of the bathrooms in our house to myself for my experiments. That was fantastic; however, there was one issue: I had a bathroom, but I needed a neuroscience lab. After days of assembling a desk and shelves, sterilizing the bathroom from top to bottom, and setting up a microscope, I had to completely rethink the ways in which experiments were run. From anesthetizing flies with vegetable packs, to reading genetics books between online classes, to fishing for large neurons under a simple light microscope, I successfully overcame seemingly impossible challenges. However, creating a space to work in was only the beginning of this scientific obstacle course. For example, in order to create the mutant flies that I needed for my project, I had to teach myself genetics. I found a professor who lived close by, and he lent me a fruit fly genetics book, telling me that if I could learn how to do genetic crosses, then he would order the materials that I needed for the experiment. I stayed up that entire night reading Ralph J. Greenspan’s Fly Pushing, and by the morning, I had 25 pages of a genetic cross scheme that would create the fly I needed. I sent this to the professor, who was quite surprised to hear from me so soon. He told me that the cross scheme looked great, and he stuck to his word to provide the needed materials. My science fair sponsor, Ms. Julie Baker, and my lab mentors, Kristin Scott and Stefanie Engert, also provided tremendous support in presenting ideas and applications of my research.

As the lifespan continues to increase, addressing age-related diseases becomes more and more crucial to humanity. A problem that irks me to my core is that when someone is diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, there is no direct cure. They’re simply told that this terrible thing is their ill-fate, and at best, they’re offered a few methods to make the process slightly less tortuous. Nowadays, we have some companies trying to charge hopeless people $50,000 for supposed “cures” to these awful diseases. Where is the compassion here? When did basic rights become a business? In my project, I found a gene humans have that when expressed, protects neurons in the brain from degenerating. This gene is called FOXO. In my experiment, I was able to save fruit flies who were predisposed to neurodegeneration by turning on the FOXO gene, which not only kept the flies’ brains healthy, but also increased their lifespan by 50%. My work lays the foundation for gene therapy that can prevent neurodegeneration from happening in a person who is predisposed to it by turning on this neuro-protective FOXO gene. Now, we certainly don’t have all the answers, but by understanding how our own genes can protect our minds from leaving before we do, we are one step closer to a solution.


Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In ten years, I see myself somewhere near Boston, Massachusetts, teaching as a neuroscience professor and running my own lab. I also see myself leading brain technology and gene therapy start-ups within the Boston biotechnology hub, where I would be living with my cat.

If you could magically become fluent in any language, what would it be?

I would like to magically become fluent in the feline language, so that I could tell if my cat actually likes me, or if he is just putting on a facade.

What are the top three foreign countries you’d like to visit?

I would love to visit Iran because that’s where my family is from. I’d also like to visit New Zealand and Switzerland because the scenery at those locations is amazing.

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In The News

Richardson, Texas – The Davidson Fellows Scholarship Program has announced the 2021 scholarship winners. Among the honorees is 18-year-old Parisa Vaziri of Richardson. Vaziri won a $10,000 scholarship for her project, The Neuro-Protective Role of FOXO in a PINK1 Loss-of-Function Based Model of Neurodegeneration in Drosophila melanogaster. She is one of only 20 students across the country to be recognized as a 2021 scholarship winner.

Download the full press release here