Who We Are: Grace Hala’ufia
From under the lights of Drachman Stadium to under the microscopes of the University of Arizona's Neurobiology Lab, women's track and field thrower Grace Hala'ufia is representing the 'A' in more ways than one.
In addition to training and competing as a discus thrower and shot putter, Grace Hala'ufia spends much of her time working as a student researcher in the university's Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program.
As an undergraduate researcher, Hala'ufia works on an individual project that ultimately fits into the larger-scale work of her lab, which studies the molecular mechanisms that contribute to the development of neurodegenerative disorders such as ALS, Alzheimers's Disease and Fronto-Temporal Dementia.
Hala'ufia's individual work focuses on developing what is called a "behavioral assay" or assessment that measures aggression levels in pairs of male flies. Her lab has been working to genetically engineer the small flies to express the human disease proteins that are known to cause degeneration and death in ALS and FTD patients. This work is done with the goal of providing a way to identify genes, cellular pathways and drugs that can reduce the effects of these diseases.
This field of research is difficult for any undergraduate student but adding on the demanding practice and competition schedules of a student-athlete makes it even more impressive for Hala'ufia.
"What is nice about my current role in the lab is that I am able to come in as needed based on the needs of my flies and labmates," said Hala'ufia. "Therefore, I often have practice in the morning, class in the afternoons and schedule time in the evenings to go into the lab and maintain fly stocks. After homework, I make sure to also schedule time into data analysis work as well."
With track season beginning in January and going through May, in addition to fall training throughout the first semester, it's hard to imagine a student-athlete having the time to dedicate to a research project. Nonetheless, Hala'ufia finds a way to balance all her responsibilities, believing that the key is communication.
"Balancing academics, athletics and lab work can be very overwhelming, with one area often taking priority over the others," said Hala'ufia. "However, it isn't impossible. A strategy that isn't talked about enough in terms of balancing various life responsibilities is communication. I have learned that being open with my coaches, labmates and professors allows for some flexibility in a seemingly rigid and demanding schedule. Whenever another part of my life requires more of my attention, I try to let the right people know of my situation and they're always understanding and adjust accordingly."
Having support plays a big role in being able to successfully take on ambitious endeavors like Hala'ufia has. She works closely with Dr. Daniela Zarnescu, a professor in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Neuroscience who oversees the lab.
"Grace is a terrific student," said Dr. Zarnescu. "Her main project is to study aggression, a well-established behavioral problem in FTD patients. With help from Dr. Shaun Davis in the Schlenke lab, she has been imaging and analyzing FTD flies and the initial results are promising. She is able to gracefully juggle her academic efforts with her activities as an athlete and her research in the laboratory. She has the curiosity, the drive and the talent to become a successful researcher and is a pleasure to work with such a talented student."
After completing her undergraduate degree, Hala'ufia plans to attend graduate school and earn a PhD in Neurobiology with the hopes of eventually running a lab of her own that will continue to work on further understanding the biological formation of neurological disorders. She would also like to be a professor.