Devo’d you’re leaving us: thanks and farewell to Dr Megan Wilson

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RealScientists would like to say a hearty thanks and fare-thee-well to Dr Megan Wilson of the University of Otago, NZ (aka @DrMegsW) who put in sterling service as our curator for this past week. Megan was our first ever developmental biologist curator, though it should be noted her research also has a strong evolutionary bent – illustrated by the broad array of different model organisms she has used and continues to use in her research, from flies and bees to mice and fish, to answer questions about the genetic pathways that underpin developmental processes, and how these have changed through evolution. Her week took her from her lab in the Anatomy Department in Dunedin’s University of Otago to the top of the South Island to the Cawthron Institute in sunny Nelson, for a meeting on sea squirts – which the Cawthron investigate as an invasive pest, while Megan researchers for what they might be able to tell us about the ancestor of all chordate animals.

Muh-muh-muh MY CIONA

Muh-muh-muh MY CIONA

Megan outlined the challenges of doing research at the bottom of the world, a full day’s flight from the research powerhouses of the US and Europe, while balancing research with university teaching, outreach and of course home and family life – challenges shared by all early-career researchers in academia. She also gave us some fascinating insights into how developmental biology (in both teaching and research) has moved through the ages from the descriptive, observational nature of early embryology to today’s molecular techniques such as in situ hybridization, quantitative PCR and RNA interference, whereby in her words ‘we break things to understand how they work’. And, of course, bombarded us with images of lovely south island scenery, making everyone furiously jealous.

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If you’ve enjoyed Megan’s tweets, you can keep following her on her personal account @DrMegsW, as well as checking out the Australia/NZ Society for Cell and Developmental Biology on Twitter and Facebook. If you missed any of Megan’s week on the account, catch up on Storify: Part 1 | Part 2

Coming on Monday: molecular virologist Dr Dave Hawkes of the Florey Institute.

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Research and development: welcome Dr Megan Wilson to RealScientists

This week we move from the west coast of Australia to the deep south of New Zealand, to welcome developmental biologist Dr Megan Wilson of the University of Otago, Dunedin.

otago022968Megan’s research is in the field of developmental biology, understanding the formation of an adult form from a fertilized egg.  She is particularly interested in researching the molecular control of pathways that underly embryonic development, and how these developmental pathways have changed throughout animal evolution.  To this end she have made use of a number of developmental models including mice, Drosophila (the venerable fruit fly, hero of genetics research), the honeybee Apis mellifera, and most recently sea squirts – which as chordates, and the closest invertebrate group to the vertebrate lineage, can tell us a lot about the evolution of developmental pathways in early vertebrates.

Megan began her scientific life as a biochemist, characterising the structure and function of sigma factors (gene regulatory proteins) involved in infection and virulence in the pathogenic bacteria Pseudomonas, before changing path and joining the group of internationally renown developmental biologist Prof Peter Koopman at the Institute for Molecular Biosciences, University of Queensland, working on the molecular genetics of mammalian sex and gonad development. Megan then spent several productive years as a research fellow in the Laboratory for Evolution and Development at the University of Otago, run by Dr Peter Dearden. After her appointment as a lecturer in the Department of Anatomy at Otago she has established her own research group in the form of the Developmental Biology Laboratory, using both vertebrate and invertebrate models to explore how gene expression is regulated during embryonic development and how these pathways evolve. Having been part of the sequencing consortium which published the genomes of Honeybee and Aphid, particularly involved in annotation of the developmental genes in both, she has continued to use next-generation sequencing approaches to investigate developmental biology questions in her current model systems. You can find out more about Megan’s research and her lab group at wilsonlab.otago.ac.nz.

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Harvesting sea squirts is a glamorous business

 Away from the lab, Megan is passionate about education and outreach. Aside from teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students as a lecturer, Megan is also involved in outreach education activities at local primary schools, setting up a mini-undergraduate lab for the junior classes on human anatomy and on honeybees, which the children and teachers enjoyed. Megan writes about New Zealand developmental biology for the Node, the community hub for developmental biologists run by leading journal Development. (Longer-term RealScientists followers may recall the Node was coordinated for some years by former RS curator Eva Amsen aka @easternblot.) Megan is also one of two NZ representatives for the Australia and New Zealand Society for Cell and Development Biology (ANZSCDB), and following their annual meeting this year at Combio in Perth, is now leading the society’s embryonic push into social media. Embryonic, heh. See what I did there. You can follow the ANZSCDB’s baby steps into social media on Twitter and Facebook. RealScientists isn’t Megan’s first foray into rotation-curation Twitter accounts, following a very popular stint on her national account @PeopleofNZ in August. (Next week’s curator @mrhawkes has also taken science communication to national ro-cur levels, and we’re very excited to have them both on RS in the next fortnight.)

Muscle development in the developing mouse embryo. Not particularly related to what Megan does, but pretty.

Muscle development in the developing mouse embryo. Not particularly related to what Megan does, but pretty.

So why development? In her introductory column at the Node, Megan explained why she became a developmental biologist:

The NZ developmental biology community is vibrant and diverse, and overlaps with a range of other disciplines, from medical research to evolution and ecology. It wasn’t always the case, though.  As a Biochemistry undergrad, and then a PhD student at Otago in the late 1990s, there were very few options for studying developmental biology. My interest in developmental biology came from wanting to know more about the genetic disorder my brother had, Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC). TSC affects multiple organ systems, but particularly the kidney, brain and skin, causing benign tumors to grow.  I wondered why these tumors occurred in only a few organs and why symptoms varied so much between individuals.  In order to really understand the origin of this disorder, I had to learn a little developmental biology, became fascinated by it, and this sparked a career shift.

We asked Megan our usual set of questions and she gave this set of answers:

1. How did you end up in science?
Science is what I enjoyed most at school.  I also did history and classics, but always found out something new when I studied science.
2.  What keeps you in it?
I still enjoy it, learning new things everyday and making new discoveries myself – trying to solve questions and doing the experiments to find the answers. I also love teaching, seeing students develop into scientists.
3. What do you like to do in your spare time (hobbies kids etc everything!)
I go to the gym, playing with the kids (Mr6 and Mr4), taking care of the hens (we have six chickens), reading… not much spare time though!
4. Where do you work and live, and why?
I work at the Dept of Anatomy as a lecturer, at the University of Otago in Dunedin – where I grew up, and did my PhD before returning here for a research position. The plan was for just 3 years but we have now been back in Dunedin for almost 9. Dunedin has a great lifestyle, especially to raise kids in, and a fantastic research-focused university environment. Having grown up here, it’s also important to me being close to family.
5. If you could do any project, with money no object, what would you do?
The hard thing would be to pick one project over so many I would want to do. It would likely to be examining the role of some of my favourite transcription factors in development, via ChIP-seq and transgenics, to understand how they act in controlling gene regulation, how they integrate multiple signals to make a functional tissue/animal. At the moment we’re doing some of this using mice and sea squirts embryos.
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Please welcome Megan to RealScientists for her week of curation!