Stephanie Sandoval-Pistorius focuses on people-centered medical research

January 10, 2022
“I am focused on Parkinson’s disease and helping those living with it. Using my science background, I can help others understand how science policy works, whether that involves establishing priorities or targeting funding at the NIH, and ultimately showing how research can impact and improve peoples’ lives… I would leave my STPP policy classes and go to my lab and continue to think about people-centered research and that science can be values-based.”  
Headshot of Stephanie Sandoval-Pistorius

Stephanie Sandoval-Pistorius

PhD, STPP, 2022
Location: Ann Arbor, MI

Stephanie Sandoval-Pistorius is pursuing her PhD in neuroscience at Michigan Medicine, studying the molecular underpinnings of Parkinson’s disease. She will go on to UCSF for her postdoctoral training, where she will investigate pathological brain activity in Parkinson’s disease patients while also working to make adaptive deep brain stimulation less invasive and more accessible.

What are you currently working on, and how do you think it can affect people with Parkinson’s disease? 

I am currently in Dr. Henry Paulson’s lab in the Department of Neurology. My research is looking at the molecular underpinnings of Parkinson’s disease, in particular, proteins involved in how cells regulate other proteins. My dissertation work has focused on the protein ubiquilin-2, which is a protein quality control protein, and whether it plays a role in regulating levels of alpha-synuclein, the protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease. My work suggests that ubiquilin-2 does indeed regulate pathological forms of alpha-synuclein. My findings may help address a key question in neurodegeneration: why do some proteins accumulate in disease, become toxic, and cause neuronal cell death? My research has been rewarding so far because I uncovered a function for ubiquilin-2 that we didn’t know of before and that may lead to a better understanding of Parkinson’s disease progression.  

What is next for you? 

I am heading to UCSF for my postdoc to work with Dr. Phil Starr and Dr. Simon Little in the Department of Neurological Surgery, where I will keep working on Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Starr and Dr. Little are leaders in studying deep brain stimulation in movement disorders and are at the forefront of developing adaptive deep brain stimulation, which uses a patient’s own brain activity to adjust the brain stimulation they receive to treat their motor symptoms. My work will look at establishing a less invasive form of recording cortical brain activity, the feedback signal used in adaptive deep brain stimulation. Current methods involve placing electrodes directly on the surface of the brain and I will investigate the use of electrodes between the scalp and skull for brain recordings, while simultaneously studying pathological brain activity in Parkinson’s disease patients. If we can use a less invasive way of sensing brain activity, more patients may be eligible for adaptive deep brain stimulation, making this novel treatment more accessible. 

Why was STPP an important part of your continuing neurology studies? 

Being a student in the STPP certificate program has enriched my graduate training. The STPP certificate program is what ultimately led me to choose U-M for grad school because of the unique opportunity to receive formal policy training while working on a neuroscience PhD. The STPP has taught me that data-driven- and values-based-policies are related and it has helped me keep my research people-centered. STPP has helped me keep my research focused on questions that may help people living with Parkinson’s disease, which I have appreciated because that is my ultimate career goal–to help Parkinson’s patients by improving treatment options and increasing our understanding of their disease. The certificate program has given me a greater perspective on the impacts of my work and the importance of making sure that my work is inclusive, equitable, and accessible. 

Going forward, I can use my training to help patients, scientists and policy makers by advocating for patient-centered policies, increased funding proposals to the NIH and NSF, and by communicating with scientists and policy-makers to convey the importance of science and technology policies. 

I know that my training through the STPP will be beneficial no matter what direction my career goes in the future.