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Science & Tech

Survivor of rare illness goes back to school

MED researcher wins $10,000 grant

Denise Valenti

When the symptoms of a deadly disease made it difficult for Denise Valenti to work full-time, she decided to take it easy and get her Ph.D. instead. It may not seem like a typical path, but Valenti is anything but typical. Now she’s celebrating a $10,000 grant award from the Association for the Advancement of Retired Persons (AARP) that will allow her to continue her research at a manageable pace.

Before she began the behavioral neurosciences Ph.D. program in the School of Medicine’s Graduate Medical Sciences Division, Valenti was an optometrist and an educator with a special interest in the diseases of aging.

In 1992, she became ill with familial dilated cardiomyopathy lysine deletion 210 (FDCM), a disease of the heart muscle that causes the heart to become enlarged and to pump less strongly. Few people survive the disease. When Valenti was diagnosed at the age of 36, she had already lost two sisters to the disease. Hers is one of only four families known to carry the genetic disorder.

She came to Boston Medical Center for treatment, and eventually was treated by Ravin Davidoff, a MED professor and director of clinical cardiology, and David Faxon, former BMC chief of cardiology.

“He suggested exercise,” Valenti says of Faxon. “I didn’t believe him, but I figured if I wasn’t going to survive, it can’t hurt. BU was on the cutting edge of studies in cardiac disorders and exercise.”

The illness prevents her from working long hours, and sometimes from performing everyday tasks, such as grocery shopping, without the help of a walker. She has found that life as a student and a researcher allows her to sit for many hours at a time and still pursue her passion without endangering her health.

Her research examines how normal aging and pathology of the visual system affects neurological functions. A National Institutes of Health grant allowed her to develop her own project researching connections between retinal function and structure and optic nerve function and structure in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Valenti is one of 30 AARP scholars for 2005–2006; the organization awards grants for researchers working in gerontology, aging, or related public policy. The grant covers tuition, academic fees, research expenses, and travel to professional meetings through June. Meanwhile, on a related project, she’s been named a senior research associate in the College of Arts and Sciences psychology department. But working full-time is not something she’ll likely consider while studying.

“Although my career has been interrupted for medical reasons,” she says, “I did not want to retire. I have elected to obtain additional education to become competitive in the field of aging research.” Valenti has a14-year-old son, who has been tested and does not have the gene for FDCM.