Brain power

Chemistry was a subject that came naturally to Ryan Limbocker. Even as a high school student, he knew that’s what he would study at KU.

Then, after seeing firsthand the suffering caused by neurodegenerative disease, he realized he needed to take on more of a challenge.

“It’s the people I’m most interested in,” he says. “If I can help people who have these diseases … that’s what is most important.”

Limbocker, a senior chemistry major from Overland Park, Kansas, joined associate professor Michael Johnson’s research group in the Department of Chemistry through his freshman honors chemistry course. Johnson’s research on neurochemistry was a natural fit for the undergraduate student.

“He was really interested in understanding the underlying mechanisms of neurological disease states,” Johnson says. “I was excited about having him in my lab and seeing what he would do, and he has certainly not disappointed.”

Limbocker has worked alongside the professor to develop his own experiments to study the neurodegenerative process in the brain. Today, his research focuses on post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment — “chemo brain” — the mental fogginess that affects up to a third of cancer patients undergoing treatment.

“Before you can develop a treatment or cure, you have to figure out why there’s a problem in the first place,” he says.

In the lab, he is monitoring neuronal release dynamics, hoping to uncover clues to the mechanism of neurodegeneration and to identify a target for a therapy. What he discovers could lead to a better understanding of chemo brain, as well as Huntington's and Alzheimer's diseases — and eventually to treatments for neurodegenerative conditions.

While Limbocker has a clear path in place that will result in him eventually teaching at a research institution like KU and continuing his research as a professor, he has his sights set on something greater.

“It's lofty to try and say you want to end Alzheimer's and chemo brain, but that is the ultimate goal,” he says. “Even finding a drug that would prevent some of their symptoms or just make their lives better would make everything worth while.”

Goldwater and Gates scholarships

Last year, Ryan Limbocker won the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship. The scholarship, which is given to undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, covers up to $7,500 annually in undergraduate expenses.

“I was able to get accepted into the top graduate programs in the nation for this type of research, thanks to the Goldwater,” he says.

Recently Limbocker was named one of 40 Gates Cambridge Scholars from the United States. The scholarships are funded by a gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the University of Cambridge in England and are given to postgraduate students who are committed to improving the lives of others.

Limbocker plans to pursue a doctorate in chemistry at Cambridge.

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