Choose Development! aims to increase diversity in developmental biology

Choose Development! aims to increase diversity in developmental biology

Snails and zebrafish are consuming two students’ summers at Rice thanks to Choose Development!, a Society for Developmental Biology (SDB) summer fellowship program aimed at increasing diversity in the field.

Missy Lollis ’21, a Sid Richardson College junior majoring in biochemistry and cell biology, and Jessa Westheimer, a junior from Carnegie Mellon University, are conducting summer research in the Rice Department of BioSciences’ laboratories. They are among six current Choose Development! fellows across the country.

The Choose Development! program brings talented undergraduate students from underrepresented minority populations together with SDB mentor scientists who offer inspiring environments to learn about science and developmental biology. The program is also open to students with disabilities.

A 2011 report published by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine highlighted the lack of diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. One of the main reasons cited for the low number of STEM graduates is that underrepresented minority students fail to see themselves as successful scientists, a problem blamed on insufficient mentoring and peer support as well as a lack of role models and support from their communities. SDB offers Choose Development! fellows support throughout their college careers and beyond to keep them in the field of developmental biology.

The program spans two summers. Fellows complete a research project with their mentors during the first summer. In their second year, they attend the SDB annual meeting to present work, develop their professional skills and build relationships with developmental biologists. The fellows also can spend a week at the Marine Biological Laboratory in a classic embryology course to learn from preeminent developmental biologists.

“I really like that the program is a small group of students and that a lot of emphasis is placed on learning and growing from each other,” Lollis said. “I’m grateful that I have another fellow here at Rice to share ideas with.”

Lollis, who is mentored by Daniel Wagner, associate professor of biosciences at Rice, is focusing her research on the embryos of the freshwater snail Biomphalaria glabrata.

“These snails are primarily known for being intermediate hosts of a parasitic disease, schistosomiasis, so a lot of work has been done on adult snails in an effort to discover if there is a way to combat the disease, which affects about 200 million people each year,” Lollis said. “We are focusing on the embryos, which haven’t been worked on as much.”

Lollis is working to detect gene expression in the embryos in an effort to create a model organism that will help her understand exactly how genes are expressed, and eventually allow her to manipulate their genome.

“I’m working on optimizing a protocol that will allow us to visualize whichever gene we’re interested in at different steps in the developmental process,” she said.

Lollis became interested in science during her mother’s pregnancies with her siblings. She read books about the development stages of a baby, attended all of her mom’s doctor appointments and even watched her give birth.

“When I first got to Rice, I wasn’t interested in research because I didn’t have an accurate picture of what research was,” Lollis said. “I found Dr. Wagner’s lab through Rice’s Sustaining Excellence in Research Scholars program, which helps underrepresented students find lab opportunities, and it made me realize that research is exciting and can actually help people.”

Westheimer, a Houston native, is mentored by Rosa Uribe, assistant professor of biosciences at Rice. She was steered toward research because of her father’s polycystic kidney disease, which is incurable.

“It’s the reason why I’m interested in science, because it cures things,” she said. “There are genes associated with polycystic kidney disease in humans that have been researched in zebrafish. So I took a list of those genes and queried them against a dataset that characterizes which genes are expressed in neural crest cells.”

Once she confirms the genes are expressed in the kidneys, she will conduct various knockdown experiments. “I’ll be looking to see if something bad happens when a specific gene is knocked down, such as cysts forming,” she said.

Westheimer worked in Uribe’s lab last summer. When Uribe told her about the Choose Development! program, she was excited about the opportunity.

“It provides the type of mentorship I’ve been looking for to guide me to graduate school,” she said.

The fellows meet with their cohorts and program administrators throughout the summer and discuss a range of topics of their choosing.

“They work really hard to cater the discussion topics and themes that we have with the entire cohort — as well as the administration in charge of the fellowship — to dictate something that is most beneficial to us,” Westheimer said. “When we spoke to former fellows who are now in graduate school, we gained insight that we wouldn’t be able to find researching online.”

“We give updates on our lab experience and support each other if we’re having a bad week or celebrate each other’s successes when something goes well,” Lollis said. “It’s really fun to get to know them in addition to the work they are doing.”

Mentors and fellows meet multiple times per week — formally and informally.

“We go over lab concerns and general science questions,” Uribe said. “The fellows also fill out a development plan that helps them think about summer goals and broader goals, and how their mentors can help them achieve success.”

The program also provides SDB mentors with a variety of growth opportunities, including mentoring workshops, to help them understand students’ needs.

“One of the things I like most about the program is the mentoring for the mentors,” Wagner said. “The mentoring workshops help us shape our activities to accommodate each student. This program provides us an opportunity to interact with other mentors and talk about the art of mentorship, something that is not innate for many people. Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s definitely worth the effort to spend time getting to know students and to help them accomplish their goals, because that effort really becomes magnified.”

“As a new principal investigator, I’m still learning how to shift from a trainee mindset to a mentor mindset,” Uribe said. “I’m learning a lot about how to put myself in their shoes and ask myself, ‘What did my mentors do for me that worked at their age?’ and I strive to translate that to the students.”

Lollis and Westheimer also benefit from other Rice resources, such as the Department of BioSciences’ Summer Research Institute, which provides a weekly journal club in which students present and discuss their papers.

“It’s been an important part of the enrichment we received this summer,” Westheimer said. “We’ve learned how to better communicate science, and we have the opportunity to present our research at the end of this summer at the Rice Undergraduate Research Symposium.”

Originally funded by the National Science Foundation, the Choose Development! program was extended by the SDB through bridge funding.