Bonnie Firestein has been researching the brain for decades, seeking to understand why it stops working correctly after a traumatic injury – like a concussion or stroke – or a neurodegenerative disease – like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.
She wants to know what can be done to stop brain cells from dying in order to prevent further brain damage, what drugs might be used to preserve brain function and how to make sure the brain works properly after disease.
“What I think is most important is that we are now taking the study of basic biology to discover new compounds and treatments in the laboratory to help people with traumatic brain injury and neurodegenerative disease,” said Firestein, a professor in cell biology and neuroscience in the School of Arts and Sciences.
In her lab, Firestein studies neuronal communication in the brain, particularly sites on nerve cells, called synapses, that allow the nerve cells to communicate. She looks at the role genes play in brain development, which may explain the biological process of neurodegenerative diseases.
With diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Firestein and researchers in her lab are identifying human biomarkers in cells and fluids from the body that could indicate a condition or a disease. “This could make it much easier to diagnose the condition in individuals and tailor personalized medicine,” she said.
Last year, Firestein was the first nonengineer biologist at Rutgers named a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, which recognizes the most accomplished individuals in the fields of medical and biological engineering. She considers bringing together the students and postdoctoral researchers who have worked in her lab during her 22-plus years at Rutgers one of her most important accomplishments. This includes the six undergraduate, one M.S. and six Ph.D. students there now, the 19 Ph.D. students who have gone on to work in the field and the more than 70 undergraduate students who have been part of the team over the past two decades.
“Science is not something you do in a vacuum,” Firestein said. “One person can’t discover everything; it takes a team.”
– Robin Lally
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