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Students devote their summer to the zebrafish fin

By studying the zebrafish, researchers hope to learn how organs and limbs achieve their correct size.

Inside Iacocca Hall, in the department of biological sciences, thousands of zebrafish live in some 700 mini-aquariums.

A team of professors and students spent this summer identifying genes from the fins of the fish in an effort to shed light on bone development in humans and how bones work in harmony with more flexible parts of the body.

Researchers say their project, which was completed in late July, could lead to future scientific discoveries into the causes of diseases and disorders that range from brittle bones to dwarfism.

The project, and three others like it, were part of the biological sciences department’s annual Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute (BDSI). In each project, a team of two professors, two graduate students and four undergrads spent 10 weeks working on a research project.

BDSI has been funded since 2007 by consecutive grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The program is directed by Vassie Ware and Neal Simon, both professors of biological sciences.

BDSI is one component of the larger HHMI Bioscience Grant to Lehigh. Many students who participate in the summer research program, said Ware and Simon, continue working on their summer project during the following academic year.

The advantage of multiple perspectives

One advantage of BDSI, said Ware, is that it enables students and faculty to work on a research project with peers from different disciplines.

“Traditionally, most undergraduate researchers work with faculty members from their major fields,” she said. “What’s unique to the BDSI program is it brings together many students from different disciplines to work with faculty members from different disciplines.

“This means we have teams of people with different perspectives. This experience is valuable for students. Students need broader perspectives in order to become leaders in their areas.”

The zebrafish project was led by M. Kathryn Iovine, associate professor of biological sciences, and Bryan Berger, associate professor of chemical engineering. Iovine, a molecular biologist, has studied the zebrafish fin for more than a decade in an effort to learn how organs and limbs achieve their correct size.

The four undergrads included Lehigh rising juniors Samuel Flores (a molecular biology major), Francisca Onyiuke (behavioral neuroscience) and Durlav Mudbhari (mechanical engineering), along with Sarah Kayode, who attends Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

The graduate students on the project, both of whom have spent three summers in BSDI, were Joyita Bhadra, who studies cell and molecular biology, and Rachael Barton, who studies chemical engineering.

The zebrafish fin is composed of multiple bony fin rays. Each fin ray is made up of bony segments, and mutations in the gap junction gene connexin43 have been found to cause skeletal defects.

Writing and public speaking

At the conclusion of the BDSI program, each student team gave a presentation lasting approximately 25 minutes. The students covered various aspects of their projects, which focused on the coordination of bone growth and skeletal patterning during development of the skeleton.

In addition to lab work, said Berger, students in the BDSI program attend workshops on writing and public speaking.

“They get training and become experienced in writing and public speaking in science, which is a valuable thing,” he said. “Learning how to give a scientific talk, writing up your work and presenting a poster—these are really good skills if you are going to go into industry or grad school.”

Iovine and Berger said having graduate assistants and a quartet of “talented undergraduates” greatly helped the project. Meanwhile, the undergrads expressed satisfaction at having enrolled in BDSI.

“I enjoy research. Being part of this program has solidified that in my mind,” said Flores, who hopes to go to medical school or pursue a career in research.

Onyiuke said the structured program provided her with discipline in meeting deadlines while focusing on biology.

For Kayode, who is from Ota, Nigeria, the lab work had its light moments, such as feeding the fish while dancing.

“We have work to do, but in the midst of work, everyone has time to smile, and I think that’s priceless,” she said.


Photos by Christa Neu

Story by Anthony Salamone

Posted on Monday, August 12, 2013

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