Purdue student seeks better understanding of eye disease mechanisms; wins Sigma Xi award

January 31, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A Purdue University student who uses life experiences to inspire her research of eye diseases has won a Sigma Xi award to support her work.

Devon Ptak, an undergraduate student in behavioral neuroscience, won the grant from the international honor society of research scientists and engineers to study retinal dystrophy.

Retinal dystrophy is a disorder within the retina tissue that disables a person's vision. The beginning of the disorder is usually painless; however, without proper treatment the ailment can progress to the point of blindness.

Ptak was first exposed to eye diseases while on a mission trip to Honduras in 2010.

"Some of the patients permanently lost their vision because many eye diseases have no known cure," Ptak said. "A better understanding of these disease mechanisms can lead to better treatments."

Current treatments work to reduce the disease's progression. Gene therapy also has been developed to help people regain vision.

Ptak will use the $1,500 award to study the role of a transcription factor (TF)-Egr1. Egr1 refers to an early growth response protein. She expects her study to reveal the basic gene network within the eye from Egr1 to the final differentiation state of the photoreceptor, as well as the role of this network in mediating visual function. 

Along with the grant, Sigma Xi invited Ptak to be an associate member of the organization. 

Ptak works in the laboratory of Yuk Fai Leung, an assistant professor of biological sciences who studies gene regulation of eye development and degenerative diseases.

Sigma Xi provides grant-in-aid research awards to undergraduate and graduate students to promote scientific excellence and achievement through hands-on learning and close relationships between students and faculty. The grants-in-aid research program awards up to $1,000 to students from all areas of science and engineering. Designated funds from the National Academy of Sciences allow for grants of up to $5,000 for astronomy research and $2,500 for vision-related research.

Founded in 1886, Sigma Xi has more than 500 chapters at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers. Membership is by invitation in recognition of research potential or achievement. Ptak was selected this month to join the Sigma Xi membership. Over the years, more than 200 Sigma Xi members have received the Nobel Prize.

Writer:  Rebekah Piotrowicz, 765-496-3006, rpiotrow@purdue.edu

Sources:  Devon Ptak, dptak@purdue.edu

                  Yuk Fai Leung, 765-496-3153, yfleung@purdue.edu