Who, What, Why: Lasya Sreepada on decoding Alzheimer’s disease

The doctoral candidate at the School of Engineering and Applied Science discusses her path to brain research and how it set her on a course to demystifying neurological diseases using data science approaches.

Lasya Sreepada
“My work is beyond me,” says Lasya Sreepada, a doctoral candidate at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “It’s really about answering fundamental questions to better people’s lives.”
    • Who

      Lasya Sreepada has always been fascinated by the brain and the underlying biology that shapes how people develop and age. “My curiosity traces back to observing differences between myself and my sister,” says Sreepada, a Ph.D. candidate whose research unites efforts across Penn Medicine and Penn Engineering. “We grew up in the same environment but had remarkably different personalities, which led me to question what drove these differences and which brought me to the brain.”

      Her academic journey began by applying medical imaging to understand how brain injuries sustained by professional athletes or military veterans impact their brain structure and chemistry over time. She became curious about how neurotrauma impacts aging and degeneration in the long term. Now, she leverages large, multimodal datasets to investigate neurodegenerative disease, with a particular focus on Alzheimer’s. Sreepada is supported by an NIH T32 Fellowship on “Translational Neuroimaging in Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias.” She is also an alumna of the Christopher Clark Scholars program at the Penn Memory Center.

      “Memory is something that really defines a human," she says. “So, something that I seek to understand is why this disease is impacting memory so aggressively, and, honestly, taking away someone’s identity before they pass away.”

    • What

      Sreepada works to disentangle Alzheimer’s disease heterogeneity using imaging and epigenetics. Specifically, she studies the concept of biological aging and how it affects disease presentation across individuals. Ultimately, she hopes her work will contribute to a better mechanistic understanding of neurodegenerative disease biology, leading to better diagnostic tools and personalized treatments.

      Her typical day involves collaborating with professionals from various disciplines, including physicians in neurology, radiology, and geriatrics as well as research scientists in bioinformatics, statistics, and computer science. She notes how impactful this interoperability unique to Penn has been for her as a student and researcher. “That seamless integration across departments has been really integral to carving out a niche for myself on campus in terms of my research and expertise.”

      Sreepada says the autonomy that students have in being able to pursue course work across schools, attend conferences, and explore seemingly disparate domains has been vital in broadening her holistic understanding of human health. She hopes to learn more about the connection between the brain and the immune system. “What I am really excited about is answering big picture scientific questions and developing new knowledge that can be used to create lifesaving medicines and vaccines,” she says.

    • Why

      For Sreepada, the drive to understand and solve significant health challenges is personal and professional. “Some of my close family and friends have battled chronic illnesses, often driven by stress, that are very common but have no cure. I felt compelled to do something about it,” she says. “My work is beyond me; it’s really about answering fundamental questions to better people’s lives.”

      Sreepada says she’s fueled by a deep curiosity and a desire to improve global health. “I’ve always asked ‘why’ and sometimes ‘how,’ which naturally led me to the scientific method,” she says. “Given that we have a rapidly aging population, it’s crucial to address this issue.” She hopes to not only advance scientific knowledge with her research but also have a tangible impact on health care. “The solution to having a thriving society is ensuring that we promote lifestyles changes for healthy aging and that our elders have the appropriate care and support they need.”

      Her experience at Penn has also been shaped by her leadership in the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE). “My Ph.D. taught me that even if you’re not immediately good at something, if you enjoy it, it’s absolutely OK and essential to keep trying,” she says. Sreepada is focused on giving back through mentorship and enjoys helping fellow graduate students build perseverance and find community. She has been involved in GABE throughout her time at Penn and served as co-president last year.

      Looking ahead, Sreepada aims to continue leveraging bioinformatics and data science to understand the brain and develop precision medicine-based solutions, whether in academia or the biotech industry.