Siegel '83 Funds Summer Student Science Research

April 10, 2014

Thanks to an endowment gift from Randy Siegel '83, this summer Elizabeth Paquette '15 will be working on cutting-edge epilepsy research in the lab of Professor Janice Naegele.

Siegel, a College of Letters alumnus, and his wife Lisa have a very personal reason for making their gift: their daughter Rebecca, 17, has struggled with intractable epilepsy since she was a baby. (Son Richie is a sophomore at New York University). Several years ago Randy and Lisa were introduced to a young advocacy group called CURE Epilepsy by another couple with a severely epileptic daughter—Susan and David Axelrod. David is the former political strategist and senior advisor to President Obama, while Susan founded CURE. The Siegels became active members of the organization, and Randy recently completed a long stint as a board member.

There, Siegel, president of the news company Advance Local, said the idea for his gift began: "Last fall I was reviewing a CURE report with our latest research grants and saw that our largest award had just gone to Janice Naegele at Wesleyan." Siegel called, introduced himself, and invited her to CURE’s annual New York City benefit.

On her side Jan Naegele was equally surprised. "This was not an established enough approach for the (National Institutes of Health)," she said. "I knew that CURE funds more novel initiatives, and after hesitating for months, I sent in the grant application and was stunned that, out of all the proposals from all over the world, we won."

Naegele's work suggests the exciting possibility that neural cell stem grafts can reduce the severity and frequency of seizures in a mouse model of epilepsy.

"We had begun experimenting on one of the forms of epilepsy--temporal lobe epilepsy---using mouse brains. The basis for our approach is that new neurons are made in the hippocampus, but in epilepsy the neurons go to the wrong place and create the wrong wiring," she said. "We transplant neural stem cells into the affected brains to see if they will help make new, effective neural circuits incorporating the transplanted inhibitory neurons. We co-inject retroviruses to label the brain's endogenous new neurons, called granule cells, and then make optical and electrophysiological recordings to see how the synaptic connections between the transplants and newly formed hippocampal neurons function."

Since that time Randy Siegel and Janice Naegele have had a number of conversations. One of the strengths of Wesleyan’s research program in this field, as in many others, is that it involves the collaboration of several labs. In this case, Laura Grabel (Biology and Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society) contributes expertise with embryonic stem cells, and Gloster Aaron (Biology and Neuroscience & Behavior) is a neurophysiologist. Siegel also was impressed by the contributions of undergraduates, as well as graduate students, to high-level research at Wesleyan. He decided to endow a summer research fellowship, enabling a student to work full-time on science.

Elizabeth Paquette '15 will be the first recipient of the Siegel Family Research Fellowship. A double major in mathematics and neuroscience & behavior and a first-generation college student, Paquette started working in Jan Naegele's lab as a Middletown High School student in a special program run by Professor of Microbiology and Biochemistry Emeritus Tony Infante. Naegele describes Lizzie as a "superb" student with outstanding quantitative skills. She adds, "My goal for her in the next year is to complete a paper for publication and co-author a second paper."

Jan Naegele has invited Randy and Lisa Siegel to talk to her class this semester about living with a child with severe epilepsy. She notes that families affected by epilepsy are extremely effective advocates in propelling attention to this major health issue. More than three million individuals in the United States have epilepsy, and although drugs and other treatments enable the majority to lead normal lives, one-third of patients do not achieve seizure control, and in some cases seizures produce brain damage. As a former Wesleyan student supporting current students who will go on to help others like his daughter, Randy Siegel says, "The symmetry is exciting and quite meaningful."

"Jan is a leader in the field," he said. "And these students will become leaders in the field." He continues, "We all have a dream that, one day, there will be a cure. With all the impressive science on campus, there is as much a chance of it coming out of Wesleyan as anywhere."

(Pictured: Randy Siegel and daughter Rebecca)

Randy Siegel and daughter Rebecca