Meet Dr. Ashley Harms: Parkinson's researcher and PAN Alabama Assistant State Director

Ashley Harms, Ph.D., is one of PAN’s Alabama Assistant State Directors.  She received her doctorate from The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, and is currently a postdoctoral scholar in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) Department of Neurology, within the UAB School of Medicine. She is the lead author of a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience about the link between Parkinson’s disease and the immune system. In this interview, Ashley shares how she became involved with PAN, more about her research, and why it is important for the scientific community to get involved with advocacy.

Dr. Harms (left) discusses her research with advocates at the 2013 PAN Forum in Washington, D.C.

Parkinson’s Action Network (PAN):  How did you get involved as a volunteer advocate with PAN?

Dr. Ashley Harms:  I was invited to attend the 2013 PAN Forum and present my research.  After meeting the staff and advocates and participating in Capitol Hill Day, I realized that research and finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease is only a small part of the bigger picture.  Understanding what these patients have to endure on a daily basis and educating others (Senators and Representatives) was truly eye-opening to me.  I felt as though I wasn’t doing all that I could to help.  Research to find a cure is vital, but improving the lives of patients and caregivers through education and government programs is extremely important, too.

PAN:  Prior to the 2013 PAN Forum, did you have any experience with advocacy, or was this something new for you?

Harms:  No.  Advocacy is something entirely new to me.  I am still trying every day to figure it out!

PAN:  Why is it important for the scientific community to take an active role in advocacy work?

Harms:  Advocacy work is one of the most beneficial ways for researchers and advocates to combine their talents for the greater good.  In the scientific community, we focus so hard on understanding the disease and finding the cure that we can sometimes forget that we can help by educating patients, advocates, and lawmakers.  It is important to remember that everyone has the same goal in the end-- to find a cure for the disease!  Actively participating in advocacy work brings everyone together to elevate the cause!

PAN:  You recently had your work published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Can you tell us a little bit about the research?

Harms:  My research focuses on the role of the immune system in Parkinson’s disease.  In the brain, the protein alpha-synuclein is associated with chronic inflammation (over-activation of immune cells), which when unresolved, is detrimental and contributes to dopamine neuron loss.  My research has found that finding the specific inflammatory pathway and shutting it down rescues the loss of dopamine neurons and resolves the chronic inflammation in the brain.  As a follow up, we are currently trying to target this inflammatory pathway as a potential disease modifying therapy!

PAN:   In addition to your research and work as an Assistant State Director with PAN’s grassroots program, do you do any other volunteer work for the Parkinson’s community?

Harms:  I am currently in the works of putting together some fundraising efforts.  It is my current goal to get graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors involved in the cause!

PAN:  When you’re not hard at work in the lab, what do you like to do with your time?

Harms:  In my free time, I love to travel, cook, entertain friends, and spend time with my husband and dogs (I have 3!).  I am also an avid runner and enjoy spending time outdoors when the weather permits!

PAN:  What advice do you have for people who want to become more involved in advocacy?

Harms:  Take the plunge!  It is one of the greatest ways you can help to make a difference!

Thank you, Ashley, for all that you do for the Parkinson’s community!

To learn more about Dr. Harms’ study on Parkinson’s and the immune system, click here or email her at [email protected].

Date originally posted: June 21, 2013