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Undergraduate researcher Madisen Swallow dives into Alzheimer’s disease research and surfaces with unexpected benefits.
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“When I came to Cornell, I saw research as this big, looming experience that I could try to do. I never thought it would become such a huge part of my life or what it would lead to.”
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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Working in the Chris Schaffer-Nozomi Nishimura lab, Swallow uses multiphoton microscopy to identify stalled or flowing capillaries in the brain.
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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Swallow is a player-participant in the innovative online game Stall Catchers, uploading her data so that other players can help analyze the data.
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank

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“In the past, the data has always been analyzed by people in our lab. But Stall Catchers turns it into a game."
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank

The Joy of Research

by Molly Karr ’18

Looking at the schedule of Madisen Swallow ’18, one wonders how the Orange County, California native has time to fit in classes, in addition to doing research every day and maintaining her pre-med track.

Along with working in the Chris Schaffer-Nozomi Nishimura lab since 2015, Swallow was the president of Cornell Health Society; served on the executive board for MEDLIFE, Cayuga’s Watchers, her social sorority, and the medical fraternity Phi Delta Epsilon. And she is the chair of the Meinig Family Cornell National Scholars program.

While Swallow has managed to serve her community and excel as a biology major with a concentration in nutrition—she humbly suggests that it was her research lab that introduced her to these on-campus opportunities.

“When I came to Cornell, I saw research as this big, looming experience that I could try to do. I never thought it would become such a huge part of my life or what it would lead to. I was able to use my network of mentors to travel to Greece on a National Science Foundation research fellowship, which as a freshman, I would never have believed possible,” explains Swallow, who initially struggled to find her academic place at Cornell.

Studying Alzheimer’s Disease in the Lab

The summer before her sophomore year, Swallow began her journey at the Schaffer-Nishimura lab. She first studied how various high-fat diets affected brain functions. This led to working on how Alzheimer’s disease is affected by high-fat diets and eventually to her current research on the disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is characterized by tau tangles and amyloid-beta plaques. According to Swallow, research shows that humans and mouse models with Alzheimer’s have 30 percent less blood flow in the brain.

“Prior findings in this lab have shown this may be due to stalls (little plugs) in the smallest blood vessels in the brain, and 70 percent of stalls are found to be caused by a type of inflammatory cell called neutrophils, some of which are responding to damage done by reactive oxygen species,” says Swallow.

According to Swallow, these reactive oxygen molecules can be equated to the bad guys, who essentially kill any cell along their path. They are increased by inflammation caused by amyloid-beta plaques. “My work in particular focuses on a molecule that inhibits an upstream mechanism that creates reactive oxygen species, and therefore aims to prevent the stalling,” says Swallow.

A Game Called Stall Catchers

Swallow’s work in the lab is time-intensive. “Every day I use multiphoton microscopy to image brain blood vasculature and take data that enables us to see which capillaries are stalled or flowing,” says Swallow.

The data is then compiled and uploaded to Stall Catchers, an online game developed by The Human Computation Institute, which crowdsources a difficult step in the data analysis process. The game, which includes a how-to tutorial and uses an algorithmic code to fact check the data, is an innovative way to speed up the process.

“The images I get when I do an imaging session look like branches on a tree. We take a section of that image and post it to the game.”

“In the past, the data has always been analyzed by people in our lab. But Stall Catchers turns it into a game. The images I get when I do an imaging session look like branches on a tree. We take a section of that image and post it to the game, where people can scroll through the section and tell us that the blood vessel is either stalled or flowing,” explains Swallow.

The Joy, Innovation, and Discipline of Undergraduate Research

Swallow stresses that her time in the Schaffer-Nishimura Lab has taught her an invaluable lesson about discipline and innovation. “I was pleasantly surprised how much my primary investigators and mentor truly allowed me to do. A lot of people think undergraduate research positions just do grunt work, but every time I’ve gone to my advisers, they’ve always pushed me to think out of the box,” says Swallow.

The most unexpected aspect of the research for Swallow was how much she enjoyed it and the opportunities it gave her. “Starting out, I never thought I’d devote so much of my time to research and be happy doing it. Seeing is believing. I actually apply things taught in my classes and have learned more through my hands-on research than any textbook could teach me,” says Swallow.

“Becoming a medical doctor but continuing research is one way I can fuse my passion with medicine and people and be innovative all at once,” says Swallow, who will be working for Teach for America next year in order to educate the next generation in STEM fields while obtaining her master's degree at Johns Hopkins University before attending medical school.