Hillary Handler

Entering Class - 2017

E-MAIL: handl032@umn.edu

PhD Thesis 2022

Undergraduate Institution and Major:

University of Puget, B.S. in Molecular and Cellular Biology, 2013 
University of Minnesota, MS, Genetic Counseling, 2016

Graduate Advisor:

Harry T. Orr, Ph.D., Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Institute for Translational Neuroscience, Pathology Tulloch Professor of Genetics Director

Graduate Research:

Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) is a dominant, fully penetrant, neurodegenerative disease characterized by progressive motor dysfunction and premature death. SCA1 pathology in the brainstem, underlying lethal aspects of the condition, is poorly understood. My research uses genetic, molecular, and computational approaches to elucidate molecular mechanisms of SCA1 in the brainstem.

Graduate Publications:

  • O'Callaghan B, Hofstra B, Handler HP, Kordasiewicz HB, Cole T, Duvick L, Friedrich J, Rainwater O, Yang P, Benneyworth M, Nichols-Meade T, Heal W, Ter Haar R, Henzler C, Orr HT. Antisense oligonucleotide therapeutic approach for suppression of ataxin-1 expression: A safety assessment. Mol Ther Nucleic Acids. 2020 Jul 25;21:1006-1016.
  • Friedrich J, Kordasiewicz HB, O’Callaghan B, Handler HP, Wagener C, Duvick L, Swayze E, Rainwater O, Hofstra B, Bennyworth M, Nichols-Meade T, Yang P, Chen Z, Pérez Ortiz JM, Clark HB, Öz G, Larson SN, Zoghbi H, Henzler C, Orr HT. Antisense oligonucleotide-mediated ataxin-1 reduction prolongs survival in SCA1 mice and reveals disease-associated transcriptome profiles. JCI Insight. 2018 Nov 2;3(21):e123193.

Graduate Awards:

2018  Stark Award

Graduate Program in Neuroscience Committees:

Community Outreach Committee  2018-2020

Professional Outreach:

  • Brain Booth Volunteer, Minnesota State Fair: 2018
  • Brain Awareness Week Lead Presenter: 2017, 2018

Professional Societies:

  • National Society of Genetic Counselors
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science

Thesis Committee Members:

Esther Krook-Magnuson, Ph.D., Department of Neuroscience (Chair)
Harry Orr, Ph.D., Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology
Rocio Gomez-Pastor, Ph.D., Department of Neuroscience
Ling Li, DVM Ph.D., Department of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology
Patrick Rothwell, Ph.D., Department of Neuroscience

Research Categories:

  • Computational Neuroscience
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases and Neural Injury
  • Neurogenetics


Harry T. Orr, Ph.D., Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology
Timothy J. Ebner, MD, Ph.D., Department of Neuroscience
Patrick Rothwell, Ph.D., Department of Neruroscience

Undergraduate Awards:

  • Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi Honor Societies, 2013
  • Phi Sigma Biological Honor Society, 2012
  • Dean’s List, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013
  • Puget Sound Trustee Academic Scholarship, 2009-2013
  • University of Puget Sound Outstanding Community Service Award, 2013
  • University of Puget Sound Outstanding First Year Biology Student, 2010

Undergraduate or Post-Bac Research:

Neuroscience, University of Minnesota – Harry Orr
I did my master’s thesis in Harry Orr’s lab. I determined the efficacy of using antisense oligonucleotides for prevention of the synthesis and aggregation of mutant ataxin1 protein in mouse models of Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 1. I used a variety of molecular approaches as well as imaging.

Molecular Genetic Pathology, University of Minnesota – Matthew Bower
While I was a genetic counseling student, I worked with Matt Bower to assess the yield of exome sequencing in determining a genetic cause of disorders of sexual development for patients without a known molecular diagnosis. I used computational tools to analyze raw Next Generation sequencing data for diagnostic purposes.

Developmental Neurobiology, University of California, Los Angeles – Bennett Novitch
I spent a summer using molecular and genetic approaches as well as imaging techniques to explore the function of FOXP1, FOXP2, and FOXP4 proteins in the regulation of neural development through characterization of their expression in the developing mouse brain.

Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Puget Sound – Mark Martin
As an undergraduate I used molecular and behavioral approaches to determine the relationship between cloacal microbial communities and phenotype, specifically reproductive success, of the striped plateau lizard. 

What Got You Interested In Research?

When I was in 5th grade I had an incredibly supportive and influential science teacher. He encouraged me to embrace my scientific curiosity and went above and beyond to cultivate my research skills. I ended up dissecting a cow brain in his class and running a series of explorative experiments on the tissue from my parents’ kitchen while learning to keep my first laboratory notebook.

Why Did You Choose MN?

I love the breadth of research in the Graduate Program of Neuroscience, the collaborative nature of the research community, and the enthusiasm the faculty have for the work that they do. I also absolutely love summers in northern Minnesota, and I felt that any program that begins by sending its students to live in cabins in the north woods while learning neuroscience techniques and promoting outdoor exploration was a perfect fit for me. Additionally, I found the city of Minneapolis to be an ideal scholastic, social, and cultural fit. 

Student Mentor and The Best Advice They Gave:

Amy Nippert – The best advice she has given me so far has been to remain open to rotations and learning opportunities outside my comfort zone

Favorite Itasca Memory:

My favorite Itasca memory was participating in a class yoga session one morning while looking out over Lake Itasca.