Transfer student thrives on biochemistry and SURF research opportunities

Sydney Vaughan

Sydney Vaughan is conducting research to better understand ALS.

By Amy Loeffler

Sydney Vaughan’s academic career planning never included Virginia Tech. As a transfer student from Virginia Western Community College in her hometown of Roanoke, Va., Vaughan’s dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon were pinned on locations farther afield.

Then a friend convinced her to visit the university and the Hokie Stone buildings and surrounding bucolic rolling hills won her over.

“After my visit, I fell in love with the campus, the atmosphere, and all the possibilities and future opportunities that Virginia Tech could offer,” said Vaughan.

Since transferring to Virginia Tech for her junior year, she has flourished.

Vaughan was awarded an ACC Creativity and Innovation Fellowship earlier this year and served as a 2013 Fralin Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF).

A rising senior majoring in biochemistry, Vaughan is now studying amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS — more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — in conjunction with the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

It has been widely understood that ALS is a degenerative neuromuscular disease that affects motor neurons, which control movement. Recent discoveries have revealed that sensory neurons that transmit information from organs and tissues to the central nervous system are also affected.

Vaughan’s research is making inroads to a better understanding of ALS by studying which population of neurons is affected first. She does this by examining the integrity of the sensory neurons and the motor neurons simultaneously — first by dissecting a muscle of interest and labeling the muscle with specific antibodies and fluorescence. These antibodies, in turn, label the receptors on the muscle, the synapse of the nerve, and the nerve fiber. Vaughan then images the slides using confocal microscopy and analyzes the integrity of the neuromuscular junctions.

“After only seven months, I have learned far beyond what I imagined, and I’ve had incredible opportunities to present my research and meet distinguished scientists in my field of interest,” she said.