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Destiny called Alaina Baker-Nigh '05 to join the battle against Alzheimer’s disease after her sophomore year at Kenyon, when she folded laundry baskets full of towels with patients during a summer job in a nursing home. “It got them talking, reconnecting with their past and feeling helpful,” she said. “It made me think that this is a group of people I could help with my degree.”
A decade later, with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, she is working on the frontier of Alzheimer’s treatment as a researcher in the Department of Neurology at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s an exciting time for Alzheimer’s research and the entire field of neuroscience,” she said. “The brain is the most complex organ to study.”
Baker-Nigh is seeking to understand the role that different forms of a protein called Apolipoprotein (ApoE) play in the development or prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Up to 50 percent of patients with sporadic (non-hereditary) Alzheimer’s carry a form of the protein associated with the accumulation of plaque in the brain. Another form offers protection from the disease.
Baker-Nigh studies fluid and tissue samples from Alzheimer’s patients and from cognitively normal people to solve the mysteries of the protein’s mechanism in order to develop therapeutic agents that target ApoE. She works in the laboratory of Randall Bateman, a physician who has pioneered a technique that accurately and consistently measures levels of the protein.
At Kenyon, Baker-Nigh won a Fulbright Scholarship to Germany, where she worked in her first Alzheimer’s laboratory. “That’s when I decided that this is what I want to do and continue doing,” she said. “I don’t think I would have had that opportunity without the faculty’s accessibility and willingness to help. My German professor, Paul Gebhardt, encouraged me to apply, and my advisor, [Professor of Neuroscience] Hewlet McFarlane, went over my application with a fine-toothed comb.” She continued to work in an Alzheimer’s laboratory at Northwestern University, where she earned her doctorate.
A St. Louis native, Baker-Nigh attended Kenyon because it was one of a few schools that blended excellence in neuroscience and writing, her other chief academic interest. On her visit day as a high school student, she sat in on an English class that just happened to be discussing Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” which she was reading at the time. “I joined in the conversation and thought, ‘OK, this works.’ It felt like home.”