TuftScope's Editor-in-Chief sat down with Tufts senior Maya Emmons-Bell to discuss her research in the Tufts Biology Department. Maya's work in Dr. Michael Levin's laboratory has culminated in her recent publication, as first author, of an article in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences titled “Gap Junctional Blockade Stochastically Induces Different Species-Specific Head Anatomies in Genetically Wild-Type Girardia dorotocephala Flatworms." Her intriguing findings proceeded to make headlines in popular news outlets. Read below for insights into Maya's research experience, and learn what it's like to be involved in such projects as an undergraduate.
How long have you been involved in research?
… My first laboratory experience was after my junior year of high school – I worked there over the summer. Then at Tufts, I started working in a biology lab the spring semester of my freshman year, and then transitioned to the lab I’m in now … I’ve been there since the spring of my sophomore year, so two years. … [In my first lab at Tufts, I worked] with baby mouse heads … We were looking at gene expression during craniofacial development, so how the face forms … I started with Mike Levin in my spring semester my sophomore year, and [there] I started with worms right away – and I’ve been with worms ever since.
Did you know you wanted to work with flatworms specifically?
No, not at all. I read about Mike’s work on the Tufts Arts & Sciences blog, and thought, “this sounds awesome!” He had just come out with a paper that was all about growing ectopic eyeballs in frog guts, and so I was like, his work sounds really cool. Then I met with him, and he told me about a number of projects that he had going on, and the flatworm stuff was just so bizarre, so weird, and I was like, yes – that’s what I want to do! But I had no idea, I had never heard of planaria before I started working with them. They’re funky little things.
When you began the project that led to the publication, did you jump in the middle of it or did you start it from the beginning?
I started by helping a graduate student with her doctoral project, and then I got a [Beckman] fellowship to be at Tufts researching for two summers and an academic year. When I got that money, Mike was like, “we need to figure out a project for you to do, because you’re going to be here forever!” And so that’s when I started the weird head shape work … and that’s been my project from beginning to end. And I’ve been working on a few other things along the way also … You need a lot of time to get into something and be able to make any progress with it.
How did you balance all your research with schoolwork?
Being here over the summer really helped. I was able to work full time on the research, so that helped a lot. Honestly, I did not do a good job of balancing things well. I started researching and I decided, “I love, love, love doing this – this is what I’m really passionate about, and I think it’s fun. And so then I went back to school, and I was like, “but wait, I want to be here and be doing all this cool stuff, but I can’t because I’m taking all these classes.” So I was kind of just in lab whenever I wasn’t in class, which was not necessarily healthy or good … but especially when you write a paper, there’s about a five month period when you’ve written it, and you’ve submitted it, and you’re getting reviews back, and then you kind of have to scramble to finish experiments that people want you to do in order to resubmit and get it accepted. That five month period corresponded really nicely with my spring semester last year, so that was a crazy sort of rush – trying to be in school and also trying to finish the project. But I’d say being there over the summer helps; I just tried to schedule my classes with as many large chunks of time as possible so I could be in lab for a good amount, and I work on the weekend, which is sort of sad.
Were you aiming for a publication from the beginning of your project?
No, I really am surprised … I got really lucky. The project I started went pretty quickly, so I got results – and really interesting results – without a lot of fumbling. And Mike, who’s my advisor, was really phenomenal at just keeping things going – telling me, “okay, you can totally do this; We’re going to write it, you have to start now, and this is what you need,” and he broke it down really well. But no – no expectation of [a publication]. But it was a crazy experience, and exciting.
Could you describe the main research question that you were looking at, as well as your main findings?
So, our lab is really interested in bioelectricity, which is pretty much the way that ions move around cells, and how those movements of ions dictate what cells are going to do. And so we were interested in, if we mess that up – we mess up the way that cells are able to share electrical information – what will happen when an organism tries to do something that requires a lot of information processing, like developing or regenerating? So we blocked these little pores called gap junction channels that allow for ions to pass between cells, and found that, actually, the worm regenerates a head that looks like a completely different species; And that was really interesting, because it means that, even though each worm is genetically almost identical … they were able to initiate all these crazy patterning processes without any change in the DNA, or in the nucleotide sequence. So that has a lot of implications for evolutionary biology, and some for regenerative medicine; but the main takeaway is, we found that the information required to build species-specific organs is not necessarily encoded in our DNA entirely, and may be influenced in some way by bioelectric properties …
What is the translation you can make from these findings in planaria to human medicine?
So, the goal of regenerative medicine in general is to build stuff – build whole organs for people. And right now, we’re pretty good at differentiating cells – so, differentiating stem cells to be muscle cells, or skin cells. But we’re really bad at putting those cells together in any sort of rational way without a scaffold or without some artificial components. So, planaria are interesting because they retain the ability to build all sorts of things: to rebuild a brain, to build skin and muscles and a gut system – all sorts of stuff – throughout their lives. So if we can understand how those processes are carried out, it’s likely that they are pretty conserved – it seems to be that they are really ancient. All the organisms that can regenerate kind of do it in the same way, more or less. So if we understand how they know when to initiate regeneration, and really importantly, how they know when to stop regenerating something that is done, then we can apply that to what we have already; We have building blocks, but we don’t know how the information is encoded in an organ or tissue system to get it to be the way it is. So that’s, you know, like a hundred years down the line – I don’t think that that’s going to happen in our lifetimes, but aside from being just a really fascinating, crazy question, I think the closer we get to understanding how systems organize themselves in vivo – so, in real life instead of in a test tube – the more luck and more success we’ll have in coordinating various cell types in a sort of nice way. But [studying] planaria is the first step in a long, extensive research program …
What are your plans post-graduation? Do you want to continue working with flatworms?
Yes, great question … I will be going to grad school. Just, prolonging real life for another five years or something. And no, I really don’t [want to continue working with flatworms]. They are going to answer some really important questions, but they’re actually really difficult to work with, just as model organisms … So I’m hoping that by the time I finish my PhD and all that, someone else will have solved all these problems … I think that they’re really unique in terms of, they’re cheap, and they’re obviously doing something incredible that people have not cracked yet. And I think with the right tools, they’ll be really invaluable to medicine … Yeah, that’s the plan for me.
Maya will be graduating from Tufts in May with a degree in biology. She can be contacted at Maya.Emmons_Bell@tufts.edu.
Balmuth, E. Interview with Maya Emmons-Bell. February 19, 2016. Tufts University, Medford, MA.
Emmons-Bell, M., Durant, F., Hammelman, J., Bessonov, N., Volpert, V., Morokuma, J., Pinet, K., Adams, D.S., Pietak, A., Lobo, D., & Levin, M. “Gap Junctional Blockade Stochastically Induces Different Species-Specific Head Anatomies in Genetically Wild-Type Girardia dorotocephala Flatworms." International Journal of Molecular Sciences 16(11) (2015): 27865-27896.