Main content
Emory sophomore climbs Mount Kilimanjaro in her father’s honor
photo at mt Kilimanjaro

Rising sophomore Betty Thomason raised funds for Parkinson’s research by scaling the heights of Mount Kilimanjaro. Thomason’s father, pictured here on a previous hike, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2020.

Imagine climbing nearly 20,000 feet above sea level to reach the highest point in Africa — Uhuru Peak — over the course of eight days. This is the exact expedition Emory sophomore Betty Thomason undertook Aug. 9-16 when she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.

The climb, which raised more than $140,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, was personal for Thomason.

Founded by actor and author Michael J. Fox, the foundation funds research with the ultimate goal to live in a world without Parkinson’s, which Thomason’s father was diagnosed with in 2020.

She sees the climb as a symbolic demonstration of those diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and those who work tirelessly to find a cure. Each of the nine team members joining her had their own ties to Parkinson’s. The entire team made it to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and four of the climbers did so with a Parkinson's diagnosis.

“It’s so meaningful to attempt climbing 20,000 feet for people who have a hard time walking 20 steps in a straight line,” Thomason says. “Every step we took on the way up there represents what the foundation is doing, what researchers are doing, what doctors are doing for patients and their families. This journey was tough mentally, physically and emotionally, but rewarding in all of those ways, too!”

Supporting the foundation’s efforts

Thomason values physical activity, especially after seeing how it helps her dad. She successfully made it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and trained by hiking other trails throughout the summer.

Thomason’s family learned about the Michael J. Fox Foundation following her father’s diagnosis. The nonprofit is the world’s largest funder of Parkinson’s drug development and has raised more than $1.75 billion since its launch.

Thomason’s first fundraising event was a virtual 5K with Team Fox, the foundation’s community fundraising program. All monies raised through Team Fox events are donated to Parkinson’s disease research programs.

Throughout her time fundraising, Thomason has learned that Parkinson’s affects more people than she realized. People will often reach out through her fundraiser page and share their experiences with Parkinson’s and how much her advocacy means to them.

Although Parkinson’s affects an estimated 1 million people in the United States, not everyone understands what the disease is and its symptoms. Thomason encourages others to educate themselves about the neurodegenerative disorder and how symptoms vary from person to person.

“The perception that we have of people with the condition and people with disabilities in general is one thing that we as a society can work on,” she says.

Her dad’s consistent routine of physical therapy, exercise and a healthy diet has motivated Thomason to be proactive in the same areas. She is a lifeguard at her local pool and was the summer event coordinator intern at the Body Positive Alliance, a student-led nonprofit organization founded by Emory student Cate Navarrete. Thomason also is a member of CHAARG, a college women’s health and wellness community. As a part of the organization’s mission to empower women in their fitness journey, they partner with fitness studios on college campuses.

As for future plans, Thomason expects to graduate from Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and looks forward to the opportunities along the way. Eventually, she wants to run in a New York Marathon with her family for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

“I’m excited to see what other opportunities the foundation presents,” she says.

Parkinson’s research at Emory

Emory is a leading clinical and basic research center for Parkinson’s disease (PD). Decades of pioneering research at Emory have been internationally recognized for playing an integral role in the discovery of PD-related brain circuitry changes, paving the way for new surgical therapies now used globally to treat those with the condition.

Emory is a member of the Udall Parkinson’s Disease Research Center network, a group of centers established in 1998 by Congress and managed through the NIH. Emory is one of only five locations in the country.

In addition, Emory is a site for the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative, a collaborative research effort supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation to identify biomarkers of disease progression to improve PD therapeutics. In 2021, Emory received a $6.3 million grant from the Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s (ASAP) Collaborative Research Network for research of motor cortical disturbances.

Recently, Emory Healthcare became the first health care system in Georgia to offer noninvasive ultrasound treatment for patients with essential tremor or tremor from Parkinson’s disease. The treatment, approved by the FDA, is a one-time procedure that improves tremors and reduces discomfort for most patients. Emory aims to expand the use of ultrasound technology and improve medical treatments to better serve every patient with Parkinson’s disease and movement disorders.

The entire team at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania. Each member has been touched by Parkinson's in some way, and four have a Parkinson's diagnosis.


Recent News