Maria Villalva | Meet Our Researcher Series

23 Sep 2020

Maria Villalva MOR

Maria Villalva, Research Assistant with CHeBA’s Brain Ageing Research Laboratory, is currently involved in developing novel theranostics for Alzheimer’s disease to facilitate earlier disease diagnosis and treatment. Through analysing nanomaterial - particularly quantum dots - the research has opened a new area in nanoneuro research and understanding brain ageing.


How did you get into researching the ageing brain?

When I began my bachelors in Science at Macquarie University, I was still unsure how I wanted my career to play out. One of my mentors encouraged me to consider research as a career, as I was evidently seeking a field where I could constantly discover new things that would have significant impact on society, while incorporating my interest in biomolecular science. I decided to continue with my studies and completed my Masters, also at Macquarie. My focus was on neuroscience, with my thesis specifically centred on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia. Sharing what I learnt from neuroscience research with my family and friends made me realise how much I genuinely enjoyed this field and wanted to pursue this passion as a career. When I saw a Research Assistant position become available at CHeBA in 2019 I thought it was a perfect fit and immediately applied.


Did you experience a ‘defining moment’ which led you to this field?

During my Masters, while working in neuroscience research at the Centre for Motor Neurone Disease, my mentors were supportive and inspiring. Their guidance helped me uncover my strengths in biomolecular science and neuroscience.

This was undoubtedly a defining moment for me as it consolidated my fascination with the brain’s complexity and confirmed it was an area and career path that I wanted to pursue.

Maria glacier
One of Maria's more intense hikes - the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand

Do you have any personal interests or activities which are protective behaviours against cognitive decline?

Maintaining a healthy diet and a consistent exercise regime are priorities for me. Before COVID-19 I would go to the gym quite regularly but now I have discovered that I really enjoy jogging around my neighbourhood listening to mentally stimulating podcasts. I like to keep things interesting and as such I have an app for weekly challenges with my friends which ensures we all keep up the kilometres. Once a month I make sure I go hiking around Sydney, Blue Mountains, north near Hornsby, or any of the coastal national park walks.


What are you currently researching?

I am the Research Assistant for Dr Nady Braidy in the Brain Ageing Research Laboratory. I am working on several projects. My main focus is investigating quantum dots applications as a diagnostic and therapeutic agent for Alzheimer’s disease, in collaboration with the School of Engineering. At the moment, I am performing invitro and planning for future invivo experiments using transgenic murine animal models of Alzheimer’s disease. We are investigating whether these quantum dots are an appropriate approach for diagnostics due to its unique optical properties. Quantum dots can also target the framework of abnormal protein aggregates found in Alzheimer’s disease. I also provide research support to the Brain Ageing Research Laboratory and assist Dr Braidy’s PhD students. A systematic review on the current status of quantum dots in Alzheimer’s disease is currently in preparation.


Why is your research important?

Current diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for Alzheimer’s disease are limited. My research provides a novel technique to not only understand the elusive pathology of Alzheimer’s disease but to also provide a potential diagnostic nanotherapeutic model to identify and treat it early.

Early diagnosis is critical, because it allows doctors to prolong dementia symptoms with current treatments that we have available, as well as provide a positive social and economic impact on the individuals and their families.

Also, nanomaterials, such as quantum dots, have opened a new branch in the field of neuroscience and ageing brain research. This is an example of one of the emerging options of non-invasive techniques we can take advantage of, to safely target Alzheimer’s disease hallmarks.


What do you love about working for CHeBA?

The fact that the Centre combines psychology and biomedical research to transfer the understanding on how the ageing brain works is an interesting concept and something I particularly like about CHeBA. I have not had a chance to meet everyone at the Centre, but I have found the Meet Our Researcher series has provided me insight into the wide variety of experts who are my colleagues. Having such a multidisciplinary environment opens doors for collaborative work which allows us to reach our goals a lot sooner.


What is the ultimate hope you have for your research?

Since Alzheimer’s disease burdens a significant proportion of the population and is expected to continue to do so in the coming decades, this research would provide a qualitative diagnostic therapeutic approach that would provide a positive and significant impact.

My personal goal is to continue to take part in this promising research in the hope that it gives us greater understanding of the complexity of this disease, as well as with other neurodegenerative diseases.

This interview was undertaken during the COVID-19 self-isolation period. Maria found that going for daily jogs and listening to podcasts provided her with a different perspective on a range of topics. She was also grateful to stay connected with friends and family over video calls. 


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Maria Villalva is a Research Assistant at CHeBA with the Brain Ageing Research Laboratory. Maria obtained a Bachelor of Science majoring in Human Biology, followed by a Masters of Research in Biomedical Science; both at Macquarie University. As an undergraduate Maria enjoyed volunteering as a Chemistry Demonstrator for both high school and primary students.