Janine Kirstein-Miles, PhD, is fast emerging as an authority of aging. The globetrotting molecular biologist has presented her research in Austria, Croatia, Germany and Japan.
A recent coup: An invitation to discuss her work at an international symposium this spring at the University of Cambridge in England.
Science, notes Kirstein-Miles, 33, who also teaches biology and biochemistry in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is an international endeavor. Researchers “have in common a natural curiosity and share a passion to make sense of puzzling observations.”
The German-born scientist, a postdoctoral fellow at the Morimoto Laboratory on the Evanston campus, has spent the last four years here investigating the links between aging and neurodegenerative decline — “Why we age, what happens when we age, what we can do about it.”
No prima donnas, her research models are casual about their cradle-to-grave documentation. Kirstein-Miles scrutinizes microscopic roundworms over the course of their three-week lifespan. She observed that damaged and malfunctional proteins build up over time, ultimately harming other proteins and enfeebling “elderly” worms. She uses biomarkers to monitor the correct fold and function of proteins.
Basically, toxic proteins trap other proteins, depleting cells of their functions, Kirstein-Miles said. On a cellular level, “worm cells and human cells are almost the same,” she said. “We utilize the same genetic pathways for our metabolism or the way our cells communicate with each other to respond to internal or external stress conditions.” Her research could reshape the treatment of geriatric patients battling neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.
Kirstein-Miles has been an instructor at SPS for three years. When she started, she just wanted teaching experience, “but this quickly changed to really enjoying the classroom,” she said. “SPS students are highly motivated and I'm glad that I can contribute to their new careers. I often hear back from former students who are now in med school or have started graduate school.”
Upon her return Stateside, Kirstein-Miles was soon packing her bags again, this time to present her findings during a six-day conference at the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, a cornerstone of biological research. Her theories are worming their way into acceptance.