Student researches connection between Alzheimer's in flies and humans, wins competition

Andrew Blake is looking for clues to a cure for Alzheimer’s – and common household pest is helping him do it.

Blake spends most of his time in the laboratory on Delaware State University’s campus, studying the genetic code of larval Drosophila Melanogaster – the fruit fly.

Like many scientists, he believes studying acetylcholine, an organic chemical that acts as a neurotransmitter, is a crucial component in treating brain diseases.

Blake’s passion for studying the insect has paid off. In February, he took first place at the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Washington.

The conference helps students improve their science communication skills, by having them explain their research through posters and oral presentations. The competition targets minorities and students with disabilities.

Blake, a senior, dreams of becoming a neuroscientist and someday combating Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. He’s been attracted to the world of science since he was young – the only thing that’s changed, he said, is the branch of science that drives him. At first, it was astronomy, then chemistry and now biology.

Blake competed last year, but didn’t bring home an award. This year, however, he was prepared and confident.

“If you’re nervous and timid people can pick up on that and think you don’t know what you’re saying,” he said. “I was smooth, I was enthusiastic, I was smiling the whole time and I could answer questions just like that.”

The sponsors are the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation. There were at least 1,000 students from across the nation.

Why did you research the fruit fly?

At first this might seem like pointless research because the Drosophila larvae is a fruit fly and who really cares about research on fruit flies, right?

The thing is these fruit flies have mutations with how they utilize acetylcholine, which is also found in humans.

They pretty much have their own little fly versions of Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease and my project is pretty much to fix that in them. If we can fix it in flies, since they are similar to humans in how they use acetylcholine, we can fix it in humans.

Why are you pursuing a career in neuroscience?

I’ve been interested in the brain since I was 12 years old. It’s the one structure in your head that does so much. It literally does everything in our lives.

When I was in sixth grade my dad was a professor at Lincoln University. Ben Carson, one of the greatest surgeons ever, was the guest speaker at their graduation. I got to meet Ben Carson and take pictures with him. I read his books and watched his movies. I saw what he was doing with the brain and I thought, this is kind of cool. That’s what really got me into it.

Why are you targeting brain diseases?

At first, it was just interesting to me. But then it became personal when I saw family members exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s and memory loss. That’s when I figured out that’s what I want to do.

If I can contribute a little bit to finding a cure or treatment for neurological diseases, that would mean the world to me. Even if it wasn’t a family member I see how it affects other people’s families and it’s a terrible thing.

What do you do in your spare time?

I watch movies on Netflix. If you’re in college and you’re not watching Netflix something is wrong with you.