Neurobiology and genetics are my two favorite scientific subjects, and my goal at WPI is to help students discover for themselves how exciting it is to work in these areas. In the classroom, I try to introduce students not only to necessary background knowledge, but also to some of the cutting-edge research going on in these rapidly changing fields. One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is helping students learn to read the scientific literature. I hope to show students that biology is not about memorizing facts, but rather about asking questions, generating hypotheses, interpreting data, and coming up with exciting new models that can help to explain whatever biological system interests them.
In my laboratory, we study how neurons navigate during development to reach appropriate locations and make the correct connections to set up a functioning nervous system. My laboratory uses the microscopic worm C. elegans as a model genetic system. Students use transgenic worms to discover how certain types of neurons behave in a normal worm, as well as in various mutant backgrounds. We also use molecular biology and protein biochemistry to understand how proteins involved in this navigation interact with each other. I am also interested in using computational tools to understand how genes are turned on and off in particular types of cells, and to model cellular interactions in the worm. One exciting aspect of working in a model system is that because of their simplicity, they often lead the way to new understanding of complex biological questions. Because C. elegans has many genes with functions similar to those of humans, understanding how the nervous system develops in this simple animal contributes to a better understanding of human neurobiology.
One of the reasons I came to WPI is that the university puts so much emphasis on students learning to carry out real research through their MQP work. In the research lab, I really enjoy helping students develop, from novices who simply carry out my instructions, to proficient scientists who can design their own experiments, interpret their results, and put their work in the context of other research in the field. Students used to lab classes that (usually) work are often surprised by how much thought and persistence it can take to get experiments to work in the research lab! When a series of experiments gives us a result that allows us to add to our understanding of the nervous system, it is truly an exhilarating feeling.