Program Director at the National Institute on Aging
The process of aging can grant us an awe-inspiring freedom of growth and depth. As we propel ourselves through life, our experiences become a way for us to reflect and perceive the world around us. We become a partial sum of our memories. However, that beautiful process of existence can leave the brain vulnerable. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is an aging-related neurologic disorder that is the most common cause of dementia – a general condition affecting the loss of memory, thinking and social abilities. Dr. Cerise Elliott, Program Director within the Division of Neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), has become an invaluable resource in the path to understanding and treating this devastating disease. Cerise is also the Co-Director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers program. Her work helps allocate funding for AD research and coordinates a diverse array of programs focused on bringing novel therapies and diagnostics for AD to the clinic. Cerise’s work helps champion fellow researchers as a guiding force, which strives towards progress for the underserved. She places an important emphasis on engaging local communities to foster diversity within research, recruitment, and retention.
Cerise’s interest in science sprung forth from her own community in Omaha, Nebraska. As a child, she lived across the street from her elementary school. Spontaneous interactions with her teachers melded into her daily life and helped cultivate her own sense of learning and curiosity. “The scientific method gave me a roadmap that allowed me to examine and question the world around me,” she says. In high school, this inquisitiveness multiplied and branched off into subjects like geography, chemistry, political science, and Eastern European history. Cerise began to volunteer more of her time towards these interests and would inquire about any opportunities available to her. Over time, she was drawn more towards chemistry. She met a number of chemists whose hands-on approach to experimental research, like testing water for pollution within their own communities, made it look fun. It placed a value on her own learning and allowed her to use her knowledge to directly benefit her community and environment.
“The scientific method gave me a roadmap that allowed me to examine and question the world around me”
Cerise advanced her scientific exploration at Creighton University in Omaha where she majored in Chemistry. While at Creighton, Cerise was one of a few female scientists of color and had a grasp that her experience would be different from that of her peers. “As a minoritized individual coming into a majority situation, sometimes you have to work twice as hard,” she says. “Even in terms of gender roles. Having people talk over you or repeat your ideas… [is] a true phenomena.” However, she found a chemistry professor that encouraged her own sense of belonging for science and passion for community work. They began to program educational chemistry exhibitions for elementary schools, where they would conduct chemistry demonstrations for 6th graders that combined music and science. During this time, Cerise also conducted research in a lab, where she learned how to culture cells and bacteria. She began studying the immune system and its disruption when faced with viral infections, such as HIV. This endeavor into experimental research nurtured new questions on how the body’s immune system can affect the pathological onset of disease.
Cerise further established her scientific journey at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where she earned a PhD in Neuroscience working with Dr. Patricia Leuschen. Her work focused on immune cells that may contribute to an inflammatory response related to multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that causes the immune system to attack the protective sheath that coats nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. As the sheath and fibers deteriorate, the signaling between the brain and body slows or completely stops – potentially leading to crippling effects of pain, blindness, or paralysis. Cerise enjoyed the fact that her research explored a subset of immune cells that not much was known about. It bordered along the periphery of knowledge and had the potential to have an impact on understanding a disabling disease. During graduate school, Cerise valued the autonomy and freedom this moment of her life granted her – she could unabashedly delve into her academic interests and was given a time to be creative and connect with others around her.
“Championing other people is really what gets others through life”
Despite reveling in the singular path that graduate school can afford, Cerise was also very grateful to the many people along the way that supported her. She had a “tribe of champions” that extended positivity and belief. “Championing other people is really what gets others through life,” she says. “Whatever the opportunity is, they’re going to [champion you]. We need those relationships in life to move forward.” Cerise found support in her PhD mentor, who helped train her and took pleasure in providing reassurance and guidance for her throughout her time in school.
The mentorship that Cerise found along the way was reciprocated and reflected in her own desire to support her community. Cerise placed a high value in engaging her local community and surrounding herself with other peers that shared mutual passions. She often volunteered her free time to community work and professional societies, which tended to indirectly flourish into relationships and opportunities along the way. After she earned her doctorate, Cerise joined AUTM, a professional society that helped bring together young professionals interested in technology transfer – the process of transferring scientific innovations for their use in wider society. This specialized niche gave Cerise a space to connect within Omaha and beyond. At a conference in Florida, she met a group of researchers from the National Institute of Health (NIH), who approached her as she was in the middle of reading a self-help book on how to network. Their personalities and interests coalesced into a mutual respect that eventually transformed into a job opportunity at the NIH. This opportunity is one that changed Cerise’s life and is something that she stressed can materialize in all of us. “I’m a big proponent of the cold call,” she says. “So, if you’re reading and you find something interesting, write a letter, drop an email. Tell people why [you are interested].”
After spending her entire life in Omaha up to that point, Cerise moved to Washington, DC in 2004 for an analyst job at the NIH. “All of these non-traditional options were opening up for scientists in Washington, DC. Instead of doing a traditional postdoc path and going into academia, it was a different and exciting opportunity,” she recalls. Cerise initially worked as a liaison with non-profit organizations, patient advocacy groups, and the drug industry to effectively disseminate NIH policies regarding their various research programs to stakeholders. However, her career blossomed within the NIH over a span of 18 years. Cerise ascended through the institute’s ranks and is now responsible for coordinating the NIA’s allocation of funding for treating dementia. In 2022, the NIA reported a behemoth budget of around $4 billion, which serves the nation as a vital source of funding for aging-related research.
“…if you’re reading and you find something interesting, write a letter, drop an email. Tell people why [you are interested].“
Cerise’s work has always placed an emphasis on effectively addressing equity within AD research. A lack of diversity and understanding in AD studies can perpetuate health disparities throughout our communities. These systemic issues place a burden on racial minorities that are notably underserved. AD research continues to under-represent the people most affected by the disease. A growing body of evidence has shown that Black and Hispanic individuals consistently have the highest incident rates of dementia and are 1.5 to 2 times as likely than whites to develop AD. Cerise has published multiple papers advocating for inclusive access to AD research, building relationships with local and underrepresented communities, and closing the gap between research and clinical care. These long-term goals of improvements in infrastructure, funding, and information available to researchers and the public all aim to bolster diversity and representation in a race to design therapeutic interventions against the onset of AD.
“I’m really out there trying to find all the new people that I can to bring together and build something.”
Beyond the overarching infrastructures that can at times seem immense at a national institute, Cerise’s ability to act as a bridge and connect groups of people lies at the core of her work. She reaffirms the same values of championing others by creating effective scientific collaborations and facilitating successful mentoring relationships among grantees. “Alzheimer’s disease research has increased resources and opportunities like never before,” she notes. “I’m really out there trying to find all the new people that I can to bring together and build something.” At the heart of this effort is an acceptance that a coalescence of perspectives must work towards curing this debilitating disease. Cerise’s steadfast commitment towards collaboration and diversity to develop scientific progress for a wider community provides a way for us all to join.
by Alex Bautista