Project's zebrafish focus

UMBC researcher's goal is birth-defect prevention

December 15, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Water sloshed back and forth in a tinted fish tank as Elim Hong carried it into a lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The graduate student collected zebrafish embryos from the bottom of the tank and placed them in small dishes. She handed them off to Rachel Brewster, who slid them under a microscope.

"The mutated embryos have an inflated ventricle," said Brewster, an assistant professor of biological sciences at UMBC, as she peered into the microscope. "And you can see numerous cells that are detached from the walls of the neural tube and are populating space."

Though a common organism, zebrafish have a characteristic that provides a unique glimpse at embryo development: They lay clear eggs outside the mother that develop quickly. Within 24 hours, the brain is formed and muscles are developed.

Brewster is using zebrafish in research that she hopes may someday lead to progress in the prevention of birth defects in humans.

"Zebrafish are the new model system for identifying genes important in development and disease," said Brewster, 39. "Their embryos are transparent, and you can see the cells moving."

The Switzerland native's research has been attracting attention in the life sciences community, earning her an award from the National Science Foundation and a five-year research grant.

"Rachel's work is groundbreaking, and it's exciting," said Daphne Blumberg, an associate professor of biological sciences at UMBC. "She's gaining new and unexpected insights into neural tube defects."

Brewster, of Baltimore, is studying how the central nervous system is assembled during embryonic development. And she's starting with the normal developmental process.

"Before we can understand what causes neural tube defects, we have to completely understand what is normal development," said Brewster, who earned a bachelor's in biology in 1989 from the University of Geneva in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1996. She also did postdoctoral work at New York University and at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

One of every 1,000 births result in a neural tube defect, Blumberg said.

"Children are born with spinal bifida when the tail end of the neural tube doesn't close," Blumberg said. "Rachel is trying to determine how the neural tube closes, how the cells assemble into position to form a neural tube, and what genes are involved in that process."

Even after four years of research, Brewster's understanding of neural tube development is only beginning.

"The more you observe, the more you analyze and the more questions arise," she said. "The process keeps you going. It's really very humbling because there is still so much we have to understand."

Her research has been published in medical journals and earned her the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the National Science Foundation recently. The award is the highest honor bestowed on assistant professors at the beginning of their careers.

Brewster was selected from about 400 assistant professors from around the country who received grants from the foundation ranging from $400,000 to $1 million. Brewster received about $537,000 for her project.

The researcher said the process has been one of self-discovery. Being a talented researcher doesn't automatically translate to being able to manage a lab, she said.

"I always play guessing games about how to run my lab," Brewster said. "You have to figure out if you need to manage people or let them work on their own. You have to believe in the students you work with. And you have to learn to take risks with the projects you attempt, because you never know which ones will work out."

The project also is providing her a chance to reach out to the community. She started a summer program in which two high school students from the Baltimore region are selected to work on a research project. Brewster tries to pick participants from groups that are under-represented in the sciences, such as minorities and women.

"It's a very important part of my job to work with younger students," she said. "I'm always surprised at how much they end up learning."

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