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Zachary Ellis: Science and service go hand-in-hand

Zachary Ellis

Zachary Ellis grew up knowing he’d one day be a Mountaineer. The Renick, West Virginia native also knew he wanted a future rooted in service to his home state. His road to WVU came via 4-H and WVU Extension, where he found the support and encouragement to follow his passion for science and research. Now, the intercollegiate biochemistry major at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and Eberly College of Arts and Sciences is conducting research into neurodegenerative diseases.

I do know one thing for sure—I want to stay here in West Virginia and work towards building a better future for our state. Growing up here, I’ve always had a community supporting me, and I want to make sure to return that favor.

Q: Tell us about your research.

A: As a member of Dr. Justin Legleiter’s biophysical chemistry lab, my research integrates knowledge and techniques from biology, chemistry and physics, focusing them on the study of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases. My research investigates biophysical changes associated with the progression of Huntington’s disease. To do this, I use atomic force microscopy to image morphological and mechanical changes in a C. elegans model of Huntington’s. These changes are known as biomarkers, and we use them to assess the potential of novel therapeutic strategies, in the hopes of improving treatment options for Huntington’s patients, which are currently very limited. 

Beyond the lab and technical skills I’ve picked up along the way, my experience as a researcher has been the most insightful of my career thus far. There’s a lot happening at the intersections of biology, chemistry and physics, and my research has enabled me to engage with those discoveries in a more meaningful way. I’ve found a sense of purpose through this work, and this experience has solidified my interests in a research career.

Q: What about research excites you?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by science, and I’ve always found purpose in service. Before joining the lab, I always pursued those two things separately. Research combines the best parts of both and allows my mind to work in a way that’s unlike anything else. I’m challenged to think about things differently, and to come up with new ideas and explanations for what we observe. At the same time, I know the work I’m doing could improve the lives of others and ultimately contribute to something larger than myself. When those two things come together, that’s my favorite part of research.

Q: What’s next after undergrad?

A: One of the great things about studying biochemistry is that there are so many opportunities available after graduation. I haven’t quite made up my mind on where I see the future taking me. For the time being, I’m planning on going to graduate school in the hopes of building a career as a researcher. I have a lot of research interests, but I’m most interested in the biochemical and biophysical bases of age-associated diseases. 

Aging is a major risk factor for a broad spectrum of diseases, including neurodegeneration. With a larger aging population than ever before, it’s of the utmost importance that we understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in aging. From there, we can identify and develop novel therapeutic strategies to treat age-associated diseases and meet the diverse healthcare needs of an aging population. 

I do know one thing for sure—I want to stay here in West Virginia and work towards building a better future for our state. Growing up here, I’ve always had a community supporting me, and I want to make sure to return that favor.

Q: Where do you see your research making a difference?

A: West Virginia is no stranger to the health challenges associated with aging, and with an increasingly older population, it’s critical that we work towards improving accessibility to the best care available. Though only a small percentage of West Virginians are affected by Huntington’s disease, there are thousands of people across the world that could benefit from this research. Moreover, this work could offer insight into other neurodegenerative diseases, which affect millions of people worldwide.

Q: We hear you’re a bit of a juggler. Tell us more!

A: I learned how to juggle in elementary school! Though a bit less traditional, it’s a great way to build hand-eye coordination, and it’s an awesome fun fact to have. It does take some practice, but it’s a lot easier to pick up than you would think.

Written by Laura Roberts