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School of Arts and Sciences

Research Fit to Print

Friday, March 4, 2016

Seniors Jennifer Hammelman and Maya Emmons-Bell lead breakthrough biology research

Jennifer Hammelman and Maya Emmons-Bell

by Dana Guth, A17

For most undergraduates in the School of Arts and Sciences, heading up a research project is a distant goal for their graduate or even post-graduate years. But for seniors Maya Emmons-Bell and Jennifer Hammelman, leadership in the lab has been a significant part of their undergraduate education. Each of the two biology majors has just been listed as the first author of her own study, an uncommon and impressive feat for undergraduates.

"It's quite rare to have undergraduate first authors," notes Professor Michael Levin, the director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology, who oversaw the two students' research. The first author of a study takes primary responsibility for coordinating research with co-authors—in this case, graduate students in the lab and collaborators' labs outside of Tufts—making it a very intensive commitment for a full-time undergraduate.

Professor Michael Levin
Professor Michael Levin

"The first barrier is to even do publication-quality research, to design and carry out novel, definitive experiments," says Levin, who taught the students' independent research course and helped guide them in the right direction. "Step two is to take the initiative, getting any additional necessary data and synthesizing it all into a paper for peer review at a good journal. Then come the inevitable revisions and new experiments to convincingly address the referees' comments. You really have to be a leader."

Hammelman's work is detailed in a book chapter that is in the process of being published. It features her research on the effect of damage on the performance of artificial neural networks, the findings of which could provide much-needed conceptual models to explain how species retain memories despite restructuring of the brain. "We first trained the network to recognize a simple pattern, then we would remove connections between the neurons, kill neurons, or add in new ones, and measure how that affected the patterning capability," Hammelman explains. "We found interesting results in that some methods for training the artificial neural networks caused them to be better at maintaining patterning in the face of remodeling."

Hammelman fell into this research when she learned Levin needed assistance from a student with expertise in computer science, which happened to be Hammelman's other major. She is continuing the project as her senior thesis, testing the use of artificial neural networks to model how non-neural cells could be using bioelectricity to communicate and recognize patterns.

Seniors Hammelman and Emmons-Bell
Seniors Jennifer Hammelman and Maya Emmons-Bell lead breakthrough biology research

"I'm really proud of my project and it took a lot of work on my part," she continues. "In reality, doing the research and then being able to participate in the production of a scientific paper is an excellent learning experience, whether or not it is accepted by a journal or a book editor. The first author publication is just the icing on the cake."

The other first author, Emmons-Bell, examined the development of heads on flatworms and whether or not this process was altered based on lab-induced morphology decisions. Her team, which included Levin, Tufts graduate students, and outside professors, found that they could induce one species of flatworm to grow heads and brains that were characteristic of another species without altering their genetic sequence.

"It's the first time that non-genomic networks had been implicated in switching between different species' morphology decisions," she says. "Professor Levin told us: 'We've found this crazy phenomenon, but we are only at the beginning of understanding what's going on and what the implications are. We will be exploring this for years to come.'" Emmons-Bell will continue this line of research throughout her second senior semester. "This has been a major part of my career at Tufts, and I'm very grateful to Professor Levin for the opportunity," she adds.

To Levin, it's hard to overstate the importance of these findings. "In my opinion, the fundamental finding that you can get species-specific morphological shapes out of the same genome is the sort of thing that could turn out to be enormously impactful in the future," he says. "This is the first paper to reveal that head shape may not be predetermined by the genome and can actually be overridden by manipulating bioelectrical networks, a finding that could help shed light on birth defects or the growth of new biological structures post-injury."

"Maya may be too modest to say this," he says. "But my prediction is that, looking back from years in the future, this paper is going to be seen as a foundational study."

Hammelman and Emmons-Bell plan to continue in Levin's lab for one more semester before graduation. Both students are applying to doctoral degree programs in biology, where they hope to begin new and different lines of independent research.

Levin receives many students seeking undergraduate research spots in his lab. To be competitive, they must have a balance of enthusiasm and previous knowledge base. Successful applicants like Hammelman and Emmons-Bell, says Levin, demonstrate a mature capacity to think very deeply about big questions in biology. "It's a big commitment. Once you're doing research, it never stops," says Levin. "[Maya and Jen] might exchange emails with me at five in the morning when on vacation, just looking up data and being ready for experiments the next morning. You have to be all in for this, and that's part of being a good scientist."