My experience with scientific research began as an undergraduate in 2004 in the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University. As a part of this honors program, I had the opportunity to shadow graduate students, technicians, and professors conducting bench science in a variety of fields of biology. It was during this time that I discovered my enthusiasm for the use of model and non-model organisms, gaining experience working in labs that used rats to study epilepsy, lady bugs and aphids to study predator-prey interactions, and nematodes to study monoamine signaling. I found a home in this last lab, working with Dr. Janet Duerr to investigate putative monoamine oxidases in C. elegans.
After undergrad, I was not ready to jump right into my graduate studies, so I sought out research technician positions in C. elegans labs where I could gain additional research experience and learn more about the day-to-day aspects of running an academic lab. I was fortunate to secure a role as the first research technician for Dr. Erin Cram's recently opened C. elegans lab at Northeastern University. In this position, I had two roles: the first as the lab manager - organizing work study schedules, planning the lab meeting calendar, ordering supplies, and staying on top of lab training, safety, and cleaning. I also conducted my own independent research, identifying a novel role for the protein CACN-1 in regulating Wnt signaling in the developing gonad (LaBonty et al, 2014). After a few years in the Cram lab, Erin encouraged me to take the next step and head on to graduate school.
In 2012, I joined the Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology program at Tufts University's Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. While there, I aimed to gain additional experience working with a wide variety of model systems. I completed rotations working with zebrafish to study cartilage and bone development, using cell culture to study human uterine fibroids, modeling osteoarthritis in mice, and investigating the fundamentals of cell patterning in fruit flies. The work I completed in my rotation in the Yelick lab working with zebrafish earned me an authorship (Zhao et al, 2014) and I used my research on fruit fly eyes in the Hatini lab as the foundation for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship that I was awarded in 2014.
I ultimately joined the Yelick lab for my graduate studies, where I was able to create the first adult zebrafish model for the rare human bone disease, Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (LaBonty et al, 2017). In addition to completing my research in the Yelick lab, I also played an integral role in the maintenance of the lab's 2000-tank fish facility and the training of all new undergraduates and technicians that came to work in our space. I completed my doctoral studies in the spring of 2018. While I thoroughly enjoyed working with zebrafish, it was at this point that I knew I wanted to move back to C. elegans as a model system because of the ease of conducting both basic and translational research in this system and the ability to use them in classroom setting.
For my postdoctoral work, I joined the lab of Dr. Brad Yoder at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I enthusiastically accepted the challenge of reviving the lab's projects using C. elegans as a tool to identify novel genetic interactions involved in the formation and function of primary cilia. I love that this project has allowed me to return to my research roots, investigating the neurobiological basis for sensory-driven behaviors in C. elegans.
Given my appreciation for model organisms in general, I would like to establish a theme in my research lab and my classroom that the importance of many scientific concepts can be best appreciated by observing them through organism development and function. This theme drives my approach to research: I look for and encourage opportunities to collaborate with peers and I see the power in using many systems and perspectives to interrogate the same question.