Little Fish, Big Impact cover

Little Fish, Big Impact

Zebrafish Research Facility opens doors for studying human disease

By Allyson Manchester

Photo: Holly Redmond

Regis Today Fall 2018

Nick Rainville ’18—now a research technician in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Cardiovascular Division—worked in the Regis Zebrafish Facility his senior year with fellow biology students.

Student and faculty scientists at Regis received a special delivery this year. Thanks to support from a 2017 Kaneb Grant, a sizeable colony of zebrafish arrived on campus from the Zon Laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital. The freshwater fish are now part of the Regis Zebrafish Research Facility, a brand-new, fully commissioned lab for undergraduate research on campus. Associate Professor Shari Litch Gray, PhD, was on the front lines of establishing the lab.

“We are lucky to have such dedicated Regis faculty and up-to-date equipment in this lab,” she says. “The Regis Zebrafish Facility will be critical to teaching undergraduates the basics of research and preparing them for the workforce.”

Assistant Professor of Environmental Sustainability Kyle Peet, PhD, has also been involved with incorporating the zebrafish into research on campus. “Zebrafish are one of the most versatile and widely used model organisms in the field of biology. Our students are incredibly excited to work with them.”

Peet is right. Although the creatures are tiny—a full-grown zebrafish measures only 1 to 1.5 inches in length—their importance to academic and medical research is enormous. Rather surprisingly, 75 percent of the genes in zebrafish are the same or orthologous (share a common ancestral gene) to human genes. These genetic similarities, as well as the ease of care of zebrafish in the laboratory, make the species an ideal research organism for studying human diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, and cardiovascular disease. Their embryos also play a major role in pharmaceutical drug testing. The translucent color and rapid development of zebrafish embryos allow scientists to watch the progression of certain diseases and pinpoint exactly where the disease may emerge in the human body.

Given the scientific value of zebrafish, Regis students and professors took great care to give the research colony a smooth entry into its new home in the Watson-Hubbard Science Center. Gray, who was trained in zebrafish care by Zon Lab staff, mentored the undergraduates who were slated to work in the facility. She educated students on the intricacies of pH, ammonia levels, UV lighting, and filtration systems—all key elements in keeping zebrafish safe and healthy.

“The biggest challenge of our work with the zebra-fish came when they were first brought to campus,” says Nick Rainville ’18, a student of Gray’s who undertook one of the first research projects in the new facility. “The chemical levels in the water in our tanks were fluctuating due to the sudden addition of the zebrafish and it was especially important to stabilize them.”

Once he mastered the basics of zebrafish care, he dove into serious academic study, ultimately developing a lab exercise with the zebrafish that will allow students in biology and environmental sustainability courses to study predator/prey relationships. For his exercise, he exposed the zebrafish to video and still images of predator and non-predator fish while observing and documenting the fish’s behavioral responses.

Peet emphasizes the importance of such projects in a young scientist’s career. “In the lab, I look for students who can demonstrate their hard work, professionalism, academic excellence, and attention to detail.”

After graduation, Rainville accepted a full-time job as a research technician in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Cardiovascular Division. He works to maintain the zebrafish colony, participate in research, and co-author scientific publications. “As the zebrafish research community grows, I would love to be a part of the amazing advancements that I believe will come from these little creatures,” he says.

Kaneb Scholars

Generous alumna and former Regis trustee Virginia Pyne Kaneb ’57 established The Virginia Pyne Kaneb ’57 Scholars Program in 1997, which funds both student scholarships and faculty research and development.

In addition to the grant for the Zebrafish Lab, the Kaneb Grants will support the following faculty research in academic year 2018–2019:

  • She Persisted: An Exploration of Role Conflict Management Among Working Mothers in EdD Programs
  • Regis-St. George’s University Global Nursing Initiative: In Support and Fulfillment of Baccalaureate Nursing Education in Grenada, West Indies
  • Bringing Hidden Music to Life
  • Completion of a Poetry Manuscript
  • Design and Develop Open Text Book and Other Supplements for a Two-Semester General Physics
  • Identifying and Training Socially Valid Parenting Skills to Parents of Preschoolers
  • Support for Pre-Medical and Pre-Veterinary Students

Research Development

Biology major Marissa Bennett ’18 is another student who pioneered zebrafish research last spring.

“I had participated in other research at Regis, including projects on developmental dyslexia and traumatic brain injuries, and developed a passion for researching health issues that can arise in average Americans,” she says. “But being part of the zebra-fish research team turned out to be the best semester of my four years at Regis.”

Bennett studied how different feeds impact obesity and spawning numbers in the same zebrafish population—a project that aligns closely with Gray’s scholarly work on developmental biology and reproductive physiology. With Gray’s mentorship, she conducted literature reviews, wrote protocols, and developed timelines and goal attainments. Above all, she learned the value of consistency and efficiency in the lab.

Currently, the zebrafish colony is comprised of 300 fish in 56 tanks. This fall, five new undergraduate students began a yearlong independent study and research coursework that relates to zebrafish—including establishing breeding protocols in the lab and working with CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a new gene editing technology that helps to make species like zebrafish more tailored to specific research needs.

Gray has high expectations for present and future undergraduate work in the lab. “It is so rewarding to see students move beyond classroom instruction to a place where they can begin to solve real problems in a research setting,” Gray says. “Students mature right before my eyes into the thoughtful researchers that the scientific community needs right now.”

Watch the students and faculty in action:

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