Scientists in the Lab: Featuring Rebecca Fleeman

By Samantha Black, PhD, The Science Advisory Board staff writer

January 8, 2020 -- This month, ScienceBoard is featuring scientists in the laboratory to celebrate their important contributions to the scientific community. We are excited to introduce our first featured scientist of this month, Rebecca Fleeman of Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, PA.

From graduate students and postdocs to laboratory technicians and principal investigators, each researcher plays an important role in the scientific process. With the beginning of a new decade comes the opportunity to set, refine, and achieve professional and personal goals. ScienceBoard is happy to help scientists at any stage of their careers convey the importance of their work and share their passion for scientific discovery with you!

We are excited to introduce our first featured scientist of this month. Rebecca Fleeman is a graduate student at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, PA.

Tell us how you got involved in your current position or laboratory.

Rebecca Fleeman
Rebecca Fleeman.

I joined Dr. Proctor's systems biology lab in the department of neurosurgery after completing a rotation with her through my PhD program in biomedical sciences. My original interest when applying for graduate school was studying cardiometabolic diseases. However, after meeting with Dr. Elizabeth Proctor at a graduate school event, I quickly became interested in neuroscience. Her lab studies neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease. Interestingly, Alzheimer's disease is increasingly being recognized as a whole-body disease, and not just a disease of the brain. My interest was further piqued when I learned that the greatest genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease is also a key risk factor for heart disease. Therefore, I chose to complete a rotation in her lab to follow my interest in connecting the mechanism behind these similar risk factors. I fell in love with her lab because we study pathology at the molecular, cellular, tissue, and whole organism level. I was excited for the opportunity to hone my skills in cell culture and in vivo models while also learning new skills such as computational multivariate modeling. My rotation project involved understanding changes in cytokine signaling in the brain due to genetic risk factors for Alzheimer's disease. I officially joined the lab after that 10-week rotation, almost a year ago.

What questions are you asking with your lab work? Or what answers will your experiments help you get?

I am trying to understand the interactions between genetic and environmental risk factors. I want to know why the APOE4 gene increases risk for Alzheimer's and if this mechanism may also play into increased risk for atherosclerosis. Specifically, we are looking at interactions between APOE E4, the greatest genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, and a Western diet. We are also asking questions about how neuroinflammation plays a role in this. We use multivariate modeling to understand the complex interactions between inflammatory cytokines in different regions and cells of the brain.

What will your work contribute to the scientific community and the public at large?

My hope is that my contributions will help in the ongoing battle to better understand Alzheimer's disease pathology onset so that we can develop better preventative strategies and therapeutics.

What types of experiments and tests do you typically perform in the lab?

We use primary cell culture to look at cytokine signaling, calcium signaling, and metabolic changes due to genetic risk factors. We mostly culture neurons, astrocytes, and microglia. We also use immunohistochemistry, immunoblot, Seahorse metabolic assays, and Luminex multiplex assays.

Do you have a favorite experiment to run or protocol? If so, tell us why.

I think my favorite experiment would be running Luminex multiplexing assays. It is a great way to look at a large number of cytokine concentrations simultaneously to get a better picture of how different Alzheimer's disease-relevant stimuli can alter inflammation. I really fell in love with this method also because it allowed me to gather data that I could then learn multivariate modeling on. I have been able to learn to use computational methods in R programming that I think are really important for understanding large data sets.

What future directions do you hope to pursue in your research career?

As a second-year PhD student, I hope to continue to pursue the research stated above. I am excited to be done with classes and candidacy in order to pursue these research directions full time over the next few years.

Do you have any publications or materials that readers can reference if they want to learn more about your work?

Not currently. So far, all my publications are from working in other rotation labs. We are currently working on papers relevant to the research stated above.

If you are interested in learning more about Rebecca or her work, she can be reached at rfleeman@pennstatehealth.psu.edu.

Scientists in the Lab

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