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#UrsinusSummer: Using Worms to Decode Parkinson’s Disease

Summer at Ursinus is when selected students pursue research with faculty mentors. Summer Fellows work on projects they can truly own. Meet Summer Fellow Brennan McFarland ’16.

Walking into a first-floor biology lab in Thomas Hall in the middle of summer, one might expect to find Brennan McFarland ’16 and his mentor, Rebecca Kohn, as the sole researchers quietly working with neurons in C. elegans. But that’s not the case. Instead, the lab is a hub of activity, boasting two teams of student researchers: one dedicated to neurobiology and the other to developmental biology.

Both groups are conducting research using C. elegans (Caenorhabditis elegans), which are microscopic nematodes. Simply put, they’re worms. Researchers at Ursinus have been studying C. elegans for 16 years, says Kohn, professor of biology and associate dean of the college, who mentors the students studying neurobiology.

At Ursinus, “both the neurobiology and developmental biology research programs with C. elegans use similar techniques,” says Kohn. “The differences between the programs are the questions that are studied. In the C. elegans neurobiology research program, function of neurons is studied. In the C. elegans developmental biology research program, how an embryo develops is studied.”

The existence of these labs is something that’s unique to Ursinus, says Associate Professor of Biology Rebecca Lyczak, who is the mentor for the students studying developmental biology. “It is unusual for a small school to have two labs working on the same model organism,” she says. “This is nice to have as you can share reagents, equipment, and expertise. Also, we go to some of the same conferences and can offer each other’s students assistance on projects. This allows us to form a mini worm community that exposes students to different projects that can be done with the same organism.” (In fact, three of Lyczak’s students—Timothy Litz ’16, Devayu Parikh ’17 and Dominique Saturno ’16—were exposed to a much larger “worm community” in late June when they traveled with Lyczak to the International C. elegans Conference in Los Angeles.)

Both labs have students with different majors (such as biology, biochemistry and molecular biology, and neuroscience) and different career aspirations. “We have both mentored students who go on to Ph.D. programs in research, medical school, industry jobs, as well as other areas,” says Lyczak.

So, why worms? “C. elegans are ideal for studying neurodegenerative diseases because we can see every neuron in their body and we can see them degenerate as they age,” says McFarland, a neuroscience and psychology double major with a minor in biology. The co-founder and co-president of the Neuroscience Club is also a FUTURE mentor, along with Alyse Brewer ’17, who is part of Lyczak’s team. As mentors, “we introduce underclassman to our individual research and show them techniques and useful skills they will take with them when they enter college,” says McFarland.

For eight weeks, McFarland (along with Bryan Carter ’16 and Elana Roadcloud ’16 ) has been analyzing the worms’ neurons, which play a role in motor function. Working with a strain of C. elegans that experienced symptoms of Parkinson’s disease over time caused by mutated gene LRRK2, “we then tagged the dopaminergic neurons with green fluorescent protein [that can be seen under a microscope], so we could see the death of these neurons as they aged,” says McFarland. The next step, which McFarland will take this fall, is to treat the worms “with an antioxidant that specifically targets the electron transport chain in the worms to see if it will attenuate their symptoms when they grow up,” he says. “Essentially, can antioxidants help prevent the onset of Parkinson’s disease?” 

So far, the supporting literature looks promising, but only time—and more research—will tell. “Working in the lab 40 hours a week has really helped me decide if I want to pursue a career in research,” says McFarland. “After this experience, I know I want to obtain a Ph.D. in neuroscience.”