It’s going to take all of us working together, doing whatever it takes, to make ALS a livable disease and ultimately find a cure. That includes researchers like our 2021 Milton Safenowitz Postdoctoral Fellowship Program recipients who are playing an important role in helping to make this happen.
The Milton Safenowitz Postdoctoral Fellowship Program continues to support young scientists and is the only program of its kind specifically funding early ALS postdoctoral fellows eagerly searching for effective treatments and a cure. Founded in memory of Mr. Safenowitz by the Safenowitz family through The ALS Association Greater New York Chapter, this unique program encourages young scientists to enter and, importantly, to remain working in the ALS field.
After completing the program, more than 75% of the postdoctoral fellows go on to start their own labs to continue studying ALS and mentor other young ALS researchers. “The Safenowitz Program is key to developing the pipeline of ALS researchers who year in and year out reinvigorate the field and help push the quest for new treatments and cures for ALS forward,” said Dr. Paul Larkin, director of research at The ALS Association.
This year, we were proud to support four new postdoctoral fellows from a highly competitive applicant pool. We are excited to highlight their dedication and unique contributions to ALS research, as well as their interests outside of the lab.
We talked with Dr. Devesh Pant, postdoctoral fellow from Emory University, to learn more about his research focused on revealing the underlying molecular mechanisms in ALS caused by the SPTLC1 mutations.
Can you briefly describe your academic background?
My interest in biology was peaked at my high school science exhibition. I pursued my bachelor's and a master’s degree in biotechnology from India. I obtained a prestigious FI (AGAUR) Ph.D. fellowship to carry out my Ph.D. in the Neurometabolic disease lab led by Dr. Aurora Pujol in IDIBELL, Spain. During my studies, I have been involved in functional characterization of novel candidate genes responsible for unknown neurological diseases. The research led to the discovery of a novel gene (DEGS1) involved in sphingolipid pathway which is responsible for a rare form of a childhood neurological disease. With this research background, I continued my research career in neuroscience as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Jie Jiang’s lab at Emory University.
Why did you decide to study ALS over other diseases?
During my Ph.D., I have gained skills from hard-working, passionate, and dedicated people working in rare neurological disorders. This has enabled me to grow, learn and contribute my knowledge to the ALS field. The key drivers for me to study ALS are the patients affected with this dreadful disease who are striving hard to fight the challenges on a daily basis, and their families who are continuously looking for ways to bring a meaningful change in the life of individuals with ALS in a timely manner.
What are the goals of your funded research project?
In 2021, novel mutations in the SPTLC1 gene were identified as the cause of a rare childhood-onset ALS. The ALS-associated SPTLC1 mutations represent the first genetic evidence that directly links perturbed sphingolipid metabolism to ALS, opening an exciting opportunity to understand the role of aberrant sphingolipid metabolism in ALS pathogenesis. The project aims to understand how these perturbances in the sphingolipid homeostasis led to ALS and whether the observed metabolic changes can be corrected therapeutically.
What do you like most about working in the ALS research field?
I like collaborating with other researchers in the field. I feel lucky to find some of them who also want to go the extra mile with you working nights and weekends and inspire to join forces and bring a meaningful change in the lives of individuals with ALS. Our lab also works closely with the Emory ALS Center led by Dr. Jonathan Glass. I recently attended the in-person Robert Packard Center for ALS Research Symposium in Baltimore, and I got a glimpse of the ALS research community and people sharing unpublished scientific findings with other ALS researchers worldwide. As a new member of the ALS research community, I look forward to making progress in my project and finding new collaborations.
How might your work impact the ALS community?
The ultimate goal of my research is to reveal the underlying molecular mechanisms in ALS caused by the SPTLC1 mutations. I believe this work will also help us understand how aberrant sphingolipid metabolism contributed to other types of ALS.
Where can people find more details about your research project?
More details can be found at: http://cellbio.emory.edu/jiang/index.html
It is often said that ALS is one of the most complex diseases to understand. Yet, you go to work every day to tackle the challenges of your research. What gives you hope that there will someday be a world without ALS?
In the last few years, the increased use of clinical genomics for molecular diagnosis, advancements in high-throughput sequencing methods, novel gene identification, biobanks, biomarker discoveries, and the use of preclinical models have significantly advanced our knowledge about the disease. Thus, unveiling a plausible therapeutic hope to treat ALS patients.
What do you like to do when you aren’t in the lab?
I like to travel to new places and practice yoga.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I want to thank The ALS Association for supporting me and my research through the Safenowitz fellowship and for actively running this program for a decade now. A special thanks to all my mentors/collaborators (past and present), friends, and family members for encouraging my curiosity and instilling determination and perseverance in me.