Many of us have experienced physicially and/or emotionally challenging events that, to some degree, have changed our perspective on life and the way we set priorities. However, one hears of very few people who have not only left their career path but also chosen a way forward that puts service to humanity above all else.
Bonnie Haferkamp is in that select minority. Last spring, shortly after her mother’s death from corticobasal degeneration, Haferkamp left her position as Life Sciences marketing leader for Rockwell Automation in order to focus full-time on research in molecular and cellular biology at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago.
Working toward a PhD — by 2010, she hopes — Haferkamp has already shown such diligence and promise that IIT has awarded her a 2007-2008 Research Scholarship, the only one given to a student in the Department of Biological, Chemical and Physical Sciences. Characteristically modest, Haferkamp remarks, “I may be an older student, but I’ve had years of problem-solving experience.”
That experience includes raising two children while cultivating a successful career as a chemical process engineer. Prior to joining Rockwell, Haferkamp worked on Manufacturing Execution Systems with Siemens Energy & Automation. At Abbott Labs and NutraSweet, she was involved in fermentation management and integrated laboratory and manufacturing solutions. While at Gensym Corp., she led the pharmaceutical and biotech market initiative for the company's artificial intelligence software in fermentation, biotech and laboratory applications.
But nature seems to abhor an irony vacuum, and in 2003 Haferkamp encountered a problem that neither she nor anyone else could solve: her mother developed a rare neurological disorder, which was eventually diagnosed as corticobasal degeneration.
“Corticobasal degeneration (see Box below) is relatively rare and there is no treatment for it,” says Haferkamp. “Sixty percent of the people with neurodegeneration have Alzheimer’s disease, so there is a lot of research around that, but not the rarer diseases.”
In an effort to understand what was happening to her mother, Haferkamp enrolled in an online graduate course in cell biology offered by IIT. She recalls, “The next semester I took another class, and then I took a lab class. I was trying to understand the processes underlying cell growth and death, and my mom was getting sicker and sicker.”
The smattering of research that has been done on corticobasal degeneration suggests that an afflicted individual will decline over six to eight years. However, Haferkamp notes that the progression of her mother’s illness occurred more rapidly, over about four years. “She first lost her ability to speak, and then lost more and more motor skills until she couldn’t move at all. Finally, she lost her cognitive functions,” Haverkamp explains. “Mom died in February (2007), and one month later, I decided to pursue a PhD.”
Given that she had already taken a few courses at IIT, Haferkamp already knew the professors in the Department of Biological, Chemical and Physical Sciences, so applying to the program “was a relatively informal process,” she says. “In fact, my advisor [Assistant Professor Jialing Xiang, MD, PhD] recommended me for a fellowship so that I wouldn’t have to go into debt to finance my education. She wanted to know that I was serious, because there’s a tremendous amount of lab work involved in this program. She made it clear that I’d need to be here every day performing experiments, and I wouldn’t be able to work” — at Rockwell or anywhere else, for that matter.
Dr. Xiang’s Web page states: “The work in my laboratory is focused on the molecular mechanisms of cancer and its potential therapy. Cancer is characterized by uncontrolled cell growth, which results from unlimited proliferation and malfunction of programmed cell death (apoptosis). Apoptosis is an essential process both in normal development and in homeostasis, removing unwanted cells. It is recognized that apoptosis plays a critical role in the development and progression of cancer.”
Whereas one type of “malfunction of programmed cell death” may result in cancer, perhaps degenerative diseases reflect apoptosis in overdrive, Haferkamp suggests.
“Many neurodegenerative diseases don’t have a genetic marker associated with them, so you can deduce from observable symptoms which disease an individual has, but you can’t come up with a definitive diagnosis until you do an autopsy,” she says. “So you get a ‘probable diagnosis.’ For instance, my mother was originally diagnosed with “probable Alzheimer’s.”
Haferkamp points out that whereas a PET scan or a functional MRI might help in narrowing down the diagnosis, those tests wouldn’t tell you what’s happening at the cellular level in the organs that are affected by a disease like corticobasal degeneration. “That’s what led me to the research I’m doing now,” she says.
The big picture
Having had a career in industry for two decades — most of which involved work with pharma and biotech companies, Haferkamp brings a novel perspective to her new field of endeavor.
“There’s too much of a divide between academia, which tends to focus on basic research, and pharmaceutical companies, which focus on the end product,” she remarks. “It’s not one or the other, it’s both in coordination.”
In addition to the latitude gained from her professional experience, Haferkamp has the longitudinal view of one of a handful of women who earned an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering in 1984. “It’s a different world in academia now,” she says. “Back in the ‘80s, only about 10-15% of my engineering school classmates were female, and I was the only woman in my physics recitation class. Now there are lots of women in the sciences.”
Finally, Haferkamp has a clarity of purpose that many of her 20-something fellow students might envy, and many of her 40-something former colleagues might find hard to fathom. “When you tell people you’re going to stop working and go back to school, they’re in disbelief,” she says. “They can’t imagine giving up a good career and a comfortable salary to be a student again.”
And although her mother’s illness and death motivated her to take the leap into the research lab, “this is intrinsically interesting to me,” she remarks. “My dad was a research veterinarian, so I guess it’s in my DNA.”
Backgrounder on Corticobasal Degeneration
What is Corticobasal Degeneration?
Corticobasal degeneration is a progressive neurological disorder characterized by nerve cell loss and atrophy (shrinkage) of multiple areas of the brain including the cerebral cortex and the basal ganglia. Corticobasal degeneration progresses gradually. Initial symptoms, which typically begin at or around age 60, may first appear on one side of the body (unilateral), but eventually affect both sides as the disease progresses. Symptoms are similar to those found in Parkinson disease, such as poor coordination, akinesia (an absence of movements), rigidity (a resistance to imposed movement), disequilibrium (impaired balance); and limb dystonia (abnormal muscle postures). Other symptoms such as cognitive and visual-spatial impairments, apraxia (loss of the ability to make familiar, purposeful movements), hesitant and halting speech, myoclonus (muscular jerks), and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) may also occur. An individual with corticobasal degeneration eventually becomes unable to walk.
Is there any treatment?
There is no treatment available to slow the course of corticobasal degeneration, and the symptoms of the disease are generally resistant to therapy. Drugs used to treat Parkinson disease-type symptoms do not produce any significant or sustained improvement. Clonazepam may help the myoclonus. Occupational, physical, and speech therapy can help in managing disability.
What is the prognosis?
Corticobasal degeneration usually progresses slowly over the course of 6 to 8 years. Death is generally caused by pneumonia or other complications of severe debility such as sepsis or pulmonary embolism.
What research is being done?
The NINDS supports and conducts research studies on degenerative disorders such as corticobasal degeneration. The goals of these studies are to increase scientific understanding of these disorders and to find ways to prevent, treat, and cure them.
Select this link to view a list of studies currently seeking patients.
National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD)
CUREPSP (Society for Progressive Supranuclear Palsy)