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Brain Mapping Gets Research Boost at WPI

Contact:Arlie Corday, WPI Media & Community Relations

LAB WORK - Elizabeth F. Ryder, right, assistant professor of biology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has received a National Science Foundation CAREER award for brain mapping research. She will work with WPI students including Maegan Rivard, left, a junior biotechnology major from Ashburnham, Mass.

Elizabeth F. Ryder, assistant professor of biology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has received a National Science Foundation CAREER award to work on the answers to that question. The award is part of the Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, Program, which encourages the growth of young faculty members as educators and researchers.

Ryder's research project, titled "CAREER: Sensory Map Formation in the Nervous System of C. elegans," will allow WPI undergraduate students to take part in the studies; in fact, undergraduate involvement is a requirement for this grant.

"The educational goal of this project is to teach students to think and work as scientists," Ryder says. "Students are taught to read and analyze papers from the scientific literature. They learn to design, perform and interpret experiments, and to communicate their results at weekly lab meetings throughout the year; graduate students also present their ongoing research at a seminar series on the WPI campus. Ultimately, students write up their results in standard scientific format, and present them orally, either on campus or at scientific meetings."

Ryder, who lives in Northboro, Mass., came to WPI in 1996. She earned an A.B. in statistics at Princeton University, an M.S. in biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health and a Ph.D. in genetics at Harvard University. She completed an American Cancer Society postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital.

It was at Mass General that her research first focused on how the brain makes a map of the outside world using the nematode (or worm) C. elegans as a research subject. Her work in this area will continue thanks to the CAREER award funding of $405,000 over the next four years.

"I'm interested in how the brain forms a map of the outside world," Ryder explains. "The concept of a topographic map is illustrated by the visual system. Neurons in the retina that sense light from neighboring points in space provide input to neurons that connect to neighboring points in the brain. Information from the world is mapped to the brain by many sensory systems in this point-to-point way. The retina is not just like a camera; a lot of processing goes on in between sensing the light and transmitting information to the brain."

As at Massachusetts General Hospital, Ryder will study this process with help from a worm.

"In my research, I'm using a simple organism, a worm whose scientific name is C. elegans, which is made up of a total of about a thousand cells, including about 300 nerve cells. I'm studying a simple topographic map that is probably involved in sensing chemicals in the worm's environment. From this simple organism, I'm trying to figure out the genes that are involved in the development of this map, and then apply the knowledge to more complex organisms, such as humans. It turns out that, amazingly enough, there is a lot of similarity between the genes that do these things in simple animals and the genes that do them in complex animals." She and her students will explore the role genetics play in this process.

A native of Summit, N.J., she is the daughter of Lois Ryder of Shrewsbury, Mass., and the late Robert Ryder. She and her husband, Peter Martin, a Boston-based attorney, are the parents of two boys, Paul, 11, and James, 6. The family will welcome a third child this fall.

WPI, founded in 1865, is renowned for its project-based curriculum. Under the WPI Plan, students integrate classroom studies with research projects conducted on campus and around the world.