Alice Lazzarini remembers, as a sixth-grader, going with her fidgety classmates to a local pond where their teacher enthusiastically pointed out the fish and the frogs cavorting below. “Once I learned how tadpoles turned into frogs, I was hooked!” says Lazzarini GSNB’76,’96. Her childhood interest in science led to a trailblazing career in genetic research. In 1996 and 1997, Lazzarini was part of a team of researchers that identified the first causative mutation for Parkinson’s disease: PARK1, located in the alpha-synuclein gene. The discovery made headlines around the world.

Earlier in 1990, Roger Duvoisin, a renowned Parkinson’s researcher, had recruited Lazzarini to join the Department of Neurology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS). As department chair, he needed a geneticist to study ataxia, the term to describe a lack of muscle coordination. Lazzarini had a master’s degree in genetic counseling from the Graduate School–New Brunswick, and during the 1980s she had coordinated a statewide program for Huntington’s disease, another debilitating neurological disorder.

Duvoisin, at the time the William Dow Lovett professor emeritus of neurology, was building a world-class research team—and a legacy. Knowing his interest in Parkinson’s disease, Lazzarini knew it was only a matter of time before she’d be drawn into his research. “One day he said: ‘Alice, I want you to prove Parkinson’s disease is genetic,’” says Lazzarini, who remains a clinical assistant professor of neurology at RWJMS. “I wondered how I was ever going to be able to fill his tall order.”

Four years after her recruitment, Lazzarini published a paper based on an analysis of the medical records of families with members who had Parkinson’s. It shed light on the genetics of the disorder and helped turn the tide of medical opinion, which argued that environmental factors caused Parkinson’s. Perhaps, Lazzarini ventured, the cause of the disease had a genetic component. And soon thereafter,  following a study of a large family living in Contursi, Italy, Lazzarini and other RWJMS researchers became part of the international team that reported the location of the PARK1 mutation. Collaborating with the National Institutes of Health and Italian researchers, the RWJMS team traced the  family’s genealogy back several generations and established that Parkinson’s could indeed be inherited. The discovery changed the direction of Parkinson’s research by  identifying a protein whose manufacture, function, or breakdown could be the  key to the disease.

Despite her success, between working and raising a family, Lazzarini hadn’t found the time or opportunity to obtain her Ph.D. “This was unacceptable to Roger,” she says. “As my mentor, he wanted me to have that degree.” She obtained her Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology from the Graduate School–New Brunswick at the age  of 56. Lazzarini eventually moved on to the pharmaceutical industry, working in drug development for Parkinson’s, contributing to the development of clinical trials of  vaccines targeting the protein identified by the team.

But then while working in this capacity, she became aware of something odd. In 2004, Lazzarini noticed she had a tremor. One of her arms wouldn’t swing right, and she was dragging one of her feet. Lazzarini was developing symptoms of Parkinson’s. “My heart sank,” she says. “I knew what it meant.” Later, chairing a professional meeting in London, she worried that the researchers would notice her tremor and wonder whether she was a colleague or a patient.

Lazzarini has a tremor-dominant form of Parkinson’s. Her tremor is noticeable but her balance and  cognition are less affected. Her  medication helps control her symptoms, and she maintains an aggressive and regular exercise regime, which, research has proven, staves off symptoms of Parkinson’s. Lazzarini lives a rich, active life of traveling, writing, exercising, and advocating for others. “I won’t let Parkinson’s keep me from doing anything I want to do,” she says.

Now retired, Lazzarini devotes herself to writing, speaking, advocating, and volunteering with the American Parkinson Disease Association. She has a blog  ( and recently published a book, Both Sides Now:  A Journey From Researcher to Patient (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014) that relives her personal and professional journey. And Lazzarini takes great joy in the successes of her daughter, Kathleen CC’86, who is a psychiatrist, and son, Robert, a renowned artist whose sculptures are included in major collections, including New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

“He inherited the art genes!” says Lazzarini, who grew up in a house steeped in art. Her father was a professor and chair of interior design at New York’s Parsons School of Design, where her mother was his student. Lazzarini never felt she had artistic talent, but she was such an accomplished seamstress that Parsons offered her a scholarship in fashion design. She turned it down, choosing to major in biology at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey.

And Lazzarini continues to take pride in her own work. “Our research has fostered a greater understanding of Parkinson’s, and it may lead to the development of promising new medications,” she says. “I don’t know if the results of this work will help me, but I hope it helps others.”  •