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Former Murray football star tackles Alzheimer's research

Grandfather's death drives ISU graduate student

MURRAY — As a high school student in Murray, Joe Webb transformed his body to become an all-district football player for the 2011 state runner-up Mustangs.

Now, as a postgraduate doctoral student at Iowa State University, Webb is applying that same disciplined work ethic to help the medical community better understand Alzheimer's disease through data collection and research.

"Joe was always one of those kids who not only played football, but was also an excellent student who had a vision and plans beyond what he was doing here in high school," said Keith Shields, head football coach at Murray for 15 years until retiring after the 2013 season. He remains the school's track coach.

Webb's stepfather and mother, Scott and Shelly Thomas, are owners of Solutions, a computer business located in Osceola. Scott Thomas' father, Wayne Thomas, suffered from Alzheimer's while Joe was a child. He fondly remembers his grandfather, and the decline in his condition before his death in 2008.

Webb is combining that background in the family's computer business with an inner drive to help future generations through Alzheimer's research. As an undergrad student in nutritional science and intern at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, his ambition changed from pre-med to pursuit of a Ph.D in research.

"That's where I got excited about the research side instead of patient care," said Webb, now 24. "I realized that in studying the disease, how to help come up with a cure, it could be fulfilling to a number of people, not just the patients I would care for as a physician. It could help future generations."

Last year, Webb was awarded two highly-competitive national fellowships in that quest to make a difference in Alzheimer's research.

The graduate student in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at ISU was named as a 2017 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) Fellow and a 2017 Research Data Alliance (RDA) U.S. Fellow.

The NSF GRFP provides fellowships to individuals based on their demonstrated potential for significant achievements in science and engineering. Webb was selected to work with scientists from across the world to examine how genetic regulation of brain structures might reveal new insights into how people form memories.

The RDA fellowship is for graduate students displaying early signs of cross discipline aptitude, an interest in data and a deep competency in their discipline. The RDA works to address big data challenges by calling upon researchers who combine data sets from different areas to develop treatments and build infrastructure needed to address data-driven challenges in science and society.

During his graduate career, Webb explained he plans to use these opportunities to study Alzheimer's disease by examining how genetics may play a role in the development of the disease. His motivation stems from losing his grandfather to the disease. He wants to fight Alzheimer's by working toward finding new therapies to treat neurodegenerative diseases.

"We can improve the understanding of how our genes regulate brain structure, function, and our ability to remember by taking a multidisciplinary approach," Webb said. "By leveraging human clinical data paired with cultured brain cells and post mortem brain tissue, we will work to identify new targets to track the changes that occur during Alzheimer's disease."

Football days

Webb's understanding of the human body and effects of positive health decisions harks back to his adolescence. He was a self-described "pudgy" high school freshman on the Murray football team who lacked the foot speed to play at the varsity level.

As a senior on the Mustang state runner-up team, he was an all-district lineman listed at 215 pounds as an offensive guard and center and defensive tackle. That was a far cry from the beginning of his career. Better eating habits at home combined with a passion for physical training turned him into a different person, physically.

"At my biggest I was probably 280 pounds," Webb recalled. "I was heavy my whole (early) life. I remember my freshman year, we always finished with a lap around the field, and I was always the person coming in last. I remember the difference my sophomore year, being one of the first few to finish that lap. It definitely improved my athletic ability and my physical stature."

Webb said it was no coincidence that Murray gained its first playoff appearance his junior year and two state trips to the UNI-Dome in the following two years after a concerted effort to establish a strength and conditioning program in Murray. The community rallied behind fundraising projects to make it a reality.

"Coach Shields was a big part of it, obviously," Webb said. "But I also remember coaches like Daryl Nerness and Steve Baker really pushing the weight program and being drawn into that experience. I got so excited about what it could do to put Murray on the (football) map. Along the way I gained a lot of self-confidence. I kept it up as an undergrad at ISU and lost another 20 pounds."

He's now a lean 200 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame.

Murray finally achieved a winning record (5-4) when Webb was a sophomore, and attained its first playoff berth his junior year in a 7-3 season that ended in a postseason loss to Grandview Park Baptist.

The breakthrough came his senior season, as the Mustangs avenged an earlier 80-40 loss to 8-player power Adair-Casey by winning 70-54 on the Bombers' home field to earn a trip to the UNI-Dome and the state semifinals. One of coach Shields' favorite memories of that night was a giant bear hug he received from Webb after the big win.

"It was such a special night for our community," Webb said. "I remember looking around at halftime and it seemed like the whole town of Murray, and several surrounding towns, were all around the football field."

The Mustangs beat Clarksville 58-35 in the semifinals before suffering an 81-0 loss to powerful top-ranked Fremont-Mills in the title game, Before the game, Webb received the 8-Player Student Athlete Achievement Award from the Iowa Bankers Association.

A 3.9 student at Murray, Webb was salutatorian, ranking second in his class behind teammate Jacob Oswald.

Campus involvement

As an Iowa State student, Webb joined other College of Human Sciences students in forming campus clubs to increase Alzheimer's disease awareness.

He was co-president of Advocates for the Alzheimer's Association at ISU. In spreading the word, he told students the story of losing his grandfather to the disease when he was 10 years old. He met countless others who had been personally affected by Alzheimer's.

"I really feel that Alzheimer's disease not only impacts the person with the disease, but also the person's family and community," Webb said.

The urgency in fighting the disease is found in some staggering projected numbers.

"It kills more than breast cancer and prostrate cancer combined," Webb said. "It's estimated that there are now 5.5 million people across the United States suffering from Alzheimer's. By 2050 that number is expected to triple. By then, Alzheimer's will cost Medicare $1.1 trillion. Last year it cost $255 billion, and this year it's expected to be $279 billion. We're now spending about $1 billion on research across the United States, but that doubled in just the last year."

Awareness campaign

In March 2017, Webb visited the Iowa General Assembly to share his story with state legislators. Later that same month, he traveled to the U.S. Capitol to meet with members of Congress in an event coinciding with the Alzheimer's Association's Advocacy Forum 2017. The focus was educating the public about Alzheimer's disease research, care and support services.

Last summer, Webb traveled to a conference in England to share findings from his research.

"I went to an international Alzheimer's conference to present some of the work done here at Iowa State," Webb said. "I got to help run the conference that brought 6,000 scientists from across the world together. At an event like that we all take notes and use some of that information in our own work."

Dr. Matthew Rowling of the ISU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition is Webb's graduate study mentor. He speaks highly of Webb's work in researching Alzheimer's.

"He is the hardest working and most engaged student I've had the pleasure of working with," Rowling said. "He makes a positive impact on everything he touches and is utilizing his opportunities as a Ph.D. student to the fullest extent. It is never about personal accolades for Joe. His concerns have always been related to making a difference for the betterment of others."

Coach Shields recalls Webb showing that same concern for others as a high school student.

"Joe always took time to work with the younger kids," Shields said. "He was a friend to everyone. Some kids you can just tell are headed to be successful, and certainly we saw that in Joe."

Webb recalls the culture shock of being from a class of less than 20 graduates at Murray to his first lecture on the ISU campus in a hall of 480 students. He hasn't forgotten those humble, close-knit roots of his upbringing.

Even now, when Murray students visit the ISU campus for FFA or academic activities, Webb often stops by to greet them.

"I couldn't be more thankful to grow up in Murray," Webb said. "Just because of the life skills that I learned before coming to college. And, there's always such a sense of community. You always felt that support. It definitely shaped my perspective here quite a bit. Once you're a Mustang, you're always a Mustang."

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