Researching Developmental Genetics – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Researching Developmental Genetics

For Yanli Guo ’12 and Nathan Martin ’13, it was an undergraduate research experience with Associate Professor of Biology Kristy Kenyon that opened the door to an incredible opportunity to co-author a chapter in the newly revised textbook, “Principles of Developmental Genetics” (2015).

Kenyon invited Guo and Martin to join her in writing the chapter – “Building Dimorphic Forms: The Intersection of Sex Determination and Embryonic Pattering” – as a continuation of the developmental biology research on the sexual differences of various species that they had conducted with her while they were HWS students.

Guo and Martin first began studying the genetics of sexual dimorphism as part of a collaboration with the laboratory of Senior Researcher Charles Linn at the Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva. Linn’s research group studies the neurobehavioral processes of olfaction (e.g. pheromones) in moth species such as the tobacco budworm (Heliothis virescens).

Kenyon partnered with the Linn lab to study the embryonic events that contribute to sex-specific differences of pheromone processing. Guo and Martin conducted a pair of independent study projects aimed at comparing the genetics of moth olfactory development with that of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster). Their research projects provided the groundwork for the textbook chapter co-authored with Kenyon.

“It’s very exciting to work with undergraduates because the interest and energy they have often helps to drive the momentum of the project,” Kenyon says. “This was a new area of investigation for me, and the students played a pivotal role in moving that research forward.”

The textbook, which includes chapters by renowned developmental biology scientists from major institutions, delivers a comprehensive look at the processes of embryonic and prenatal development across a wide range of areas, including stem cell biology, systems biology, clinical disorders and technologies.

Guo, who is currently a physician assistant specializing in gastroenterology and hepatology at Lincoln Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y., says it was her fascination with developmental biology and its interconnections with new technologies and other fields of biology that propelled her interest in taking part in the research as a student.

“Throughout my research, I began to understand the complexity of many biological processes through the elucidation of gene regulatory network,” Guo says. “In our case, it was cellular and molecular changes that occur in the imaginal disc during larvae and pupae stages of Heliothis virescens embryogenesis, which no prior similar research was conducted on this moth species.”

Guo says she spent three years under the mentorship of Kenyon, calling her HWS experience “unforgettable and life-transforming.” She credits Kenyon for preparing her to think critically and expand her intellectual curiosity, and HWS for giving her the skills necessary to be competitive when applying for graduate programs to become a physician assistant.

“After a four-year college experience, I became a different person from the time when I decided to explore a liberal arts education as an international student from China,” Guo says. “My gradual changes took place in well-taught classes, research laboratories, on campus programs, off-campus civic engagement programs and global education. I received precious opportunities to grow, from serving the Geneva community as a volunteer Chinese teacher, being a resident assistant on campus, to having a Tibetan art research trip in India. The Colleges’ emphasis on community engagement, academic excellence and intercultural experience have challenged my mind while allowing me to explore and enjoy new worlds.”

Reflecting on his time at HWS, Martin says it was the research experience under the guidance of Kenyon that helped develop his confidence to go into the field of biology after graduation. He says the hands-on research opportunities outside of the classroom have helped to prepare him for a related career as well as for applying to graduate schools. Currently, Martin is a research associate in the Environmental Studies Laboratory at Keene State College, where his current work focuses on understanding the physical, chemical and toxicological characteristics of biodiesel and diesel combustion emissions. He hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in immunology or immunotoxicology.

“I participated in a number of research projects as an undergraduate, covering topics ranging from plant pathology to entomology, evolutionary biology and developmental genetics,” Martin recalls. “All were unique and enlightening in their own right; however, contributing to this chapter was particularly enlightening. I think that my development as a scientific writer was immensely helped as a result of this project.”

Kenyon says working in this area of developmental biology research with her former students has helped to broaden her academic interests at the intersection of biology and sociology. She says the collaboration was emblematic of the types of research opportunities available to HWS students.

“I’m proud of the work the students did,” Kenyon says. “The chapter would not have taken shape without their efforts.”

In the first photo, Associate Professor of Biology Kristy Kenyon poses for a recent photo. In the foreground is a copy of the textbook, “Principles of Developmental Genetics,” which includes a chapter she co-authored with Yanli Guo ’12 and Nathan Martin ’13.

In the second photo, Yanli Guo ’12 and Associate Professor of Biology Kristy Kenyon join for a photo in the lab during a 2011 summer research project on Heliothis virescens, also known as the tobacco budworm.

In the third photo, Nathan Martin ’13 carries out an experiment as part of his role as a research associate in the Environmental Studies Laboratory at Keene State College.