WYLD Spotlight on Dr. Whitney Wharton

Dr. Whitney Wharton is both a leader in research and a leader in WYLD based at Emory University in the Department of Neurology in Atlanta, Georgia USA. This month’s SPOTLIGHT focuses on Whitney, her energy and enthusiasm and advice for other WYLD members.

1.    What is the most unique aspect of the institution/ organization/ city that you work?

As a clinical research scientist – I deal with participants who have a parent with Alzheimer’s disease so there is a lot of participant interaction. However, I am primarily interested in the biological markers of AD, so we have a lab and do much of our own processing and wet lab work. The combination of the clinical and basic science on a day to day basis is pretty unique.

2.    Will you share an overview of your research work?

I am a prevention scientist and clinical trialist specializing in Alzheimer’s disease and vascular risk factors. I implement lifestyle and pharmaceutical interventions in individuals at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease due to parental history, race and gender. The goal of my research is to determine how we can prevent the biological markers of the disease from occurring in the brain.

3.    How did you arrive at working in Alzheimer’s and dementia?

My background is in women’s health and cognition. While working on a clinical trial as an undergraduate, I realized the impact that vascular risk factors have, particularly for women, on the brain. After realizing the impact that Alzheimer’s has on the individual, the economy and the family caregivers, it would have been hard for me to study anything else.

4.    What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Watching my team work together to conduct a 7 hour study visit – I have two research coordinators and 4 students who all work together to accomplish the goals of the study and ensure the participant is comfortable.

Having a research participant tell me they want to participate in our next study, even after multiple lumbar punctures, blood draws and MRIs, hours of cognitive testing, and virtually no compensation – all because they want to help us fight this disease and because they had a positive research experience.

5.    What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

For my particular trials recruitment is always challenging. My studies involve invasive procedures, including lumbar punctures and sometimes study medications or adherence to a labour intensive exercise regimen. We do a lot of outreach at local churches and health fairs to explain why clinical research is important, particularly in the African American community, so we can help individuals most at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

6.    How do you see your work impacting the broader dementia community?

We hope that our research will help to guide clinical practice. My intervention studies aim to direct antihypertensive prescription practices in the African American community. In my lifestyle interventions (exercise, Tango dance and art) I hope that we will one day be able to write a prescription for a lifestyle intervention, such as exercise, to lessen the individual’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

7.  What was the last scientific / research conference that you attended or presented at?

I always attend the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, which was in London this past summer. This year I also attended VasCog – a small conference focused on the vasculature and the brain. I would highly recommend this conference for investigators with similar interests.

8.  What advice would you give someone interested in future work in the dementia field?

Find a mentor who can promote your professional and research career.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are experts in all areas of dementia research and collaboration, particularly when you are young, is key. Try to leverage resources.

9.  Where were you born?

Lubbock, Texas. My family owned a cattle ranch.

10.  What are three non-professional facts about you?

I love outdoor music festivals and art shows.

We have a special room in our home where there are no electronics allowed – except for an old record player.

Outdoor grilling is my favorite thing to do on the weekends.

Thank you Whitney for sharing a glimpse into your work and your world! Congratulations on your successes to date, and on behalf of WYLD, we wish you continued success in the future.