Department of Biology
I grew up in Vermont and western Massachusetts, the oldest of three siblings. As a first generation college student, I received my Bachelor’s of Biology from Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI, where I graduated cum laude with minors in chemistry and psychology. I completed my PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Massachusetts, and then went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in Bethesda, MD. I lived for 5 years in the metro-DC area before relocating to Morgantown, West Virginia. I am currently an assistant professor in the Biology Department at WVU, as well as co-chair of the Neural Research Interest Group of the Zebrafish Disease Models Society.
I was hooked on genetics in high school thanks to my ninth grade biology teacher, Ms. Tatro. Even earlier than that, when I was just 5-years-old, the word “chromosome” entered my vocabulary upon the birth of my brother, who has Down’s Syndrome (trisomy-21) and ASD. I think part of me always wanted to understand at any level what made him the way that he was and how to help him and others with different disabilities; I eventually discovered the path of scientific research.
I was introduced to zebrafish and its power as a vertebrate model for genetic disorders in humans by Dr. Kerri Warren, an associate professor in biology at RWU when I was an undergraduate. Dr. Warren studied zebrafish with mutations in genes that caused heart defects in both fish and human patients, and I was immediately drawn to this type of basic research with biomedical relevance. I next joined Dr. Rolf Karlstrom’s lab at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to work with zebrafish and genetically and phenotypically characterize a zebrafish mutant with early neural patterning deficits. Upon leaving graduate school I wished to continue work in zebrafish as they are a very beautiful, powerful, and versatile genetic model system that could be brought with me to many different types of research institutions in the future – thinking forward. I joined Dr. Harold Burgess’ lab at the NICHD in November, 2010, to extend my focus from the genetic control of neurodevelopment in zebrafish to identifying neural circuits that control the behavioral outputs that the nervous system regulates. I was largely intrigued by recent findings showing that, by just 5 days old, larval zebrafish have a number of sensory mediated responses to environmental stimuli such as light, sound, and vibration, and wondered if the model could be used to better understand the genetic underpinnings of neurodevelopmental disorders in which human patients have sensory processing deficits. We found a population of neurons that modulate the acoustic startle response and prepulse inhibition, an innate sensory motor gating phenomenon that is conserved across vertebrates and disrupted in patients with certain neurodevelopmental disorders, including schizophrenia and ASD.
In my research lab at WVU, we use zebrafish (Danio rerio) in projects aimed to fully elucidate the molecular genetic pathways that direct the development and ultimately the function of specific neural circuits required for normal sensory processing; currently we are focusing on visual neural circuits. We study a zebrafish mutant for the transcription factor encoding gene, gs homeobox 1 (gsx1) that has lost expression of an important neurotransmitter called glutamate in distinct brain regions, including those involved in sight. Neurotransmitters carry information between neurons in the brain and affect their activity, which makes you more or less likely to think or behave in a certain way.
We are also examining the development of neural pathways directing critical processes for organism survival including growth, reproduction, and homeostasis. Our gsx1 mutant zebrafish also have reduced expression of certain hormones in their hypothalamus and pituitary gland. We are documenting changes in gsx1 mutant zebrafish growth and behavior over time in different environmental contexts compared to wild type zebrafish. These studies should reveal novel functions for gsx1 in neurodevelopment between zebrafish and mammals, including humans, as many of these early developmental transcription factors are highly conserved in their expression patterns and functions across species.
I currently have several undergraduates and two graduate students working with me in my lab. We also have a lab technician who helps maintain the zebrafish facility, in addition to doing some lab work that is related to multiple projects. In our studies we utilize a combination of microscopy, molecular genetic tools, temporal and spatial gene expression analysis techniques, behavioral assays and neuroanatomical analyses. We are thus far the largest and only operating zebrafish facility at West Virginia University, and I know of just one other zebrafish lab in the state at Bluefield State College. It has been an exciting and rewarding challenge to build a zebrafish research lab from the ground up, and in part one of my long-term academic goals come true.
In my free time when I’m not conducting research, I like gardening, cooking and baking using simple recipes and as many fresh local ingredients as possible. I also enjoy trying new craft beer breweries, going to concerts, camping, and being outdoors. My dad is a retired chef and he owns about 80 acres of land on the MA/VT state line. He learned maple sugaring from his grandfather and has collected sap from sugar maple trees for many years. For the last nine years he has been making maple syrup – about 1,100 gallons a year on average. I helped build Bergeron Sugar House while I was in graduate school at UMass, Amherst working on my PhD in molecular and cellular biology. I have learned from my family that hard work pays off no matter what type of work it is, and to do whatever it takes to get the job done.