A rocky road to success for UQ researcher

Years of hard work have led Dr Alessandra Donato to the cusp of a discovery that could result in new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

After moving to Australia from Italy in 2013, she completed her PhD in Neuroscience in the Hilliard laboratory at the Queensland Brain Institute in March, 2019.

Dr Donato studied oxidative stress in neurons in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans.

Dr Donato undertook vital experiments on how to stop the neurons from dying - a hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases.

“The molecule I identified in my PhD as protecting against oxidative stress in roundworm neurons is now being tested in mammals.

“I am both excited and nervous at the same time, but I can finally hope that this method of neuron protection is going to work.

“It’s like a door has opened, and we have so much ahead of us and so many avenues to explore,” she said.

“And every experiment we do now really counts to what is going to be the final product.”

But getting to this point has taken a lot longer than first expected.

Dr Donato originally began her PhD investigating a different project, but after a year-and-a-half of work, including a three-month visit to co-advisor Professor Yun Zhang’s laboratory at Harvard University, the original project wasn’t producing the results she and her supervisors had hoped.

It was at this point that she switched her focus on studying how to stop neuron death, but as an international student, the 18 months Dr Donato had spent on her first project still counted towards her four-year time limit to finish her PhD.

The ticking clock, and the numerous thesis revisions required by the examiners after submission, left her stressed and seeking help from counselling and psychologists available through UQ.

“I think PhDs are also a special category of professionals as we undergo a lot of pressure and I had moments that I asked myself, what am I even doing here?" she said.

“I had left my family, I had left everything to do this.

“I have always been confident and strong, but I was shaken during that time, and now I know how resilient I am and I know I can face and overcome difficulties.”

Having interests outside the campus also played a part in relieving stress and ensuring she didn’t spend all her time in the lab, and providing an opportunity to meet new people.

Dr Donato spent three years learning Argentine tango, and another three learning the Brazilian martial art, Capoeira.

“These are two things where you can’t be thinking about anything else, so it was really good to detach from all the craziness of the lab work and the intrinsic intensity of the job.”

She advises other researchers embarking on their PhD that selecting the right supervisor is paramount, and paid tribute to her own supervisor, Professor Massimo Hilliard.

“He has been an extremely great mentor for the entire process, and my father says he and my partner have been the two pillars by my side to carry me through.”

Dr Donato has relished her time at UQ, describing the Queensland Brain Institute as a place of excellence, and said she was excited to continue her work here.

“What I am trying to achieve is really so much bigger than me - we are trying to find something that will help people and will improve our understanding of the biological process of oxidative stress in neurons and the consequent neurodegeneration.

“When I re-submitted the thesis, the examiners commended me for the hard work and for how much the document had improved, and it really made it all worth it in the end.”

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