Meghan Bucher works at the intersection of environmental health and neuroscience. Specifically, she focuses on the “middle step” between exposure and disease—the mechanisms that occur after environmental exposure or genetic mutation that can lead to neurodegeneration and disease.

Bucher, who is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, has always been fascinated by neurological diseases. “Unlike other cells that can replicate, when a neuron dies, it’s gone forever,” she said. “So my work focuses on understanding what causes them to die, so that we can help with halting or preventing the degeneration.”

Bucher came to Columbia after receiving her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh. There, she focused on the health and degeneration of dopaminergic neurons as they relate to Parkinson’s disease. She and her Pittsburgh colleagues found that disrupting the dopamine packaging in rats replicates many of the disease’s features; their research was published by npj Parkinson’s Disease

“Dopamine producing neurons use dopamine to control movement,” Bucher explains. “When these neurons degenerate and die—as they do in Parkinson’s disease—you lose control of your motor faculties and movements. This causes the many motor-related symptoms of Parkinson’s.”

With support from the Data Science Institute (DSI), Bucher joined Gary Miller’s lab in 2020. Miller, who is a professor of environmental health sciences, Mailman’s vice dean for research strategy and innovation, and a DSI executive committee member, and his team work in the field of exposomics, which involves understanding how exposures from a person’s environment, diet, and lifestyle interact with genetics, physiology, and epigenetics to impact health. 

The Miller lab’s most recent research was published by Chemical Research in Toxicology, and describes a cell culture assay that may be used in screenings to identify the effect of pharmacological compounds and environmental toxicants on dopamine packaging. This work provides insights into how exposures can modulate dopamine handling, which may lead to Parkinson’s or other diseases of the dopamine system.

Another recent article in Toxicological Sciences describes the Miller lab’s research with dopamine packaging in the C.elegans, which are transparent, simple, microscopic organisms with a genome that has been sequenced. This work involves mutating the genome of C. elegans or treating them with toxicants to induce dopamine neuron degeneration and examining the effects. Metabolomics, which is a method leveraging data science to analyze small molecules in whole organisms, helps the researchers better understand the crucial “middle step” between genetic mutation or toxicant exposure and degeneration.

Bucher also analyzes massive data sets to identify environmental signatures. For example, data science allows her to examine blood samples from people before and after they develop Parkinson’s disease, and compare them with those who did not develop the disease. “Data science can help show what processes and pathways are involved,” she said. “This helps us better understand which specific process is being disrupted by the exposure, and helps scientists consider where they can target therapeutics.”

— Karina Alexanyan, Ph.D.