MBL - Williams Summer Research Program

The Williams-MBL summer  program offers a unique ten-week research opportunity for undergraduates students.  This is  a HHMI-Williams supported program whose goal is to expose students to research projects early in their college career.  Any student interested in biological research may apply to the program, however students from emerging populations are actively encouraged to participate in the program.

Since the research opportunity takes place at the Marine Biological Laboratory, the student’s research experience is designed to take advantage of both the vibrant community present at the MBL each summer, and the nuts and bolts of conducting a project in lab each day. The first goal of the program is to have students participate in an original research project. The research question reflects my interests in developmental biology and evolution. During the ten-week program, the students characterize the spatiotemporal expression pattern of the zinc finger transcription factor protein called Hunchback in mollusk, nemertean, and annelid embryos using a cross-reactive antibody developed in my lab.  The students compare the hunchback-like expression patterns observed in embryos from diverse phyla, and then are able infer the evolutionary role(s) of this protein in these understudied protostome groups.

An important second goal of the program is to expose students to a broad array of opportunities offered at the MBL each summer. This exposure is accomplished by having the students attend graduate-level courses, general lectures, and meet with resident scientists.  There is one MBL summer course that is closely affiliated with the Williams program.  The SPINES (Summer Program in Neuroscience, Ethics and Survival) graduate-level course provides  an intensive one-month experience, in which graduate students are exposed to neuroscience laboratory techniques, contemporary neuroscience research, ethics and survival skills (including grant writing, teaching, public speaking, and others).  The SPINE students and faculty warmly welcome the William students in every aspect of the course, thus providing a  ‘window’ into the future for those interested in pursuing an academic career in biological science.

Williams College Student Participants in front of Lillie

John Vu ’09 , Fati Sammy ’09, Jessica Diehl ’09, Taylor Wilson-Hill ’09, Rob Savage, Tynisha Smalls ’06, and Emily Behrmen ’09

Research Results Obtained at the MBL

We have focused our efforts on characterizing the Hunchback-like expression patterns in two gastropod embryos, Crepidula fornicata and Ilyanassa obsoleta which has resulted in a publication (see Dean et al., 2009. Biological Bulletin 217(2): 189-201).  Based upon the comparative data collected from both ecdysozoans and lophotrochozoan lineages, our data support the hypothesis that the role of Hb in anteroposterior patterning is a derived trait specific to arthropods, and that the ancestral function of lophotrochozoan Hb-like protein played a role in the formation of the cleavage-stage blastomeres, the gastrula epithelium and in structures associated with larval feeding and locomotion.

We also worked with new animal systems such as nemerteans and echiurid worms which posed exciting challenges for us.  In the end, the students worked extensively with animals from five different lophotrochozoan phyla and generated an outstanding body of preliminary data.  Our data suggest that the cross-reactive antibody recognizes Hunchback-like protein in five lophotrochozoan phyla: annelids, molluscs, echiurans, nemerteans and bryozoans. To date, the spatiotemporal expression patterns of Hunchback-like protein in embryos and larvae from each the five phyla are highly conserved.

We also participate in the only biologically-focused  July 4th parade in the country!