After graduating from high school in Fishers, Indiana, Amiel Jaggernauth ’18 headed to a large state university in New England to study neuroscience. The first day of class, he learned that a lead professor in the program was leaving — and taking his funding with him.
Jaggernauth was disappointed, but instead of wallowing in self-pity, he took action. He decided to transfer to another school after his first year.
“I looked on the Clark website, and I found Dr. Néva Meyer’s lab. Her research in developmental biology directly corresponded with my interests,” Jaggernauth recalls. Even better, Denis Larochelle, associate professor of biology at Clark University, connected Jaggernauth to Meyer, who welcomed him for a tryout in her lab.
Now a junior at Clark, Jaggernauth has worked in Meyer’s laboratory for more than a year as part of a directive study program and also through funding he received via Clark’s Interdisciplinary Summer Research Program.
“The more knowledge I have about the development of neurons and the molecular mechanisms behind those decisions of the cells, the more qualified I am. I try to spin it in a way so I can see a medical application. What I tell my dad is: I’m putting legs to the research.”
Meyer and her team of graduate and undergraduate researchers examine the evolution of the centralized nervous system in Bilateria, the branch of animals with bilateral symmetry. That branch includes a wide range, from worms to spiders to humans. Unlike non-bilaterians, such as comb jellies, sponges and jellyfish, bilaterians have brains and nerve cords.
“We’re trying to reconstruct an evolutionary split that happened hundreds of millions of years ago,” explains Meyer, assistant professor of biology.
To do that, her team studies the marine worm Capitella teleta, part of the annelid branch in the spiralian group of bilaterians. Such animals are called spiralians because when developing, their cells divide in a spiral fashion. Under a microscope, the Meyer Lab researchers can see the worm’s cells splitting every 20 to 60 minutes, while shifting and rotating.
“When you look through the microscope, it’s absolutely beautiful,” Jaggernauth says. “There’s never a dull moment with Capitella. I don’t know how many undergraduates get the chance to see cells divide in real time. I literally get to watch life happen. That’s something I’m really appreciative of, and it’s the main reason why I transferred to Clark.”
The research team’s work could help scientists overcome “a huge gap in our knowledge of central nervous system development” in spiralians, Meyer says. “By studying central nervous system development in annelids, we hope to make significant contributions to our understanding of the basic mechanisms of neurogenesis in annelids and to our understanding of the evolution of centralized nervous systems overall.”
“I want some job security, and I believe my biology degree from Clark will provide that. I plan to put myself on a path where there’s not going to be a shortage of open doors – and I want to work in the biotech industry, where I can have a 20- or 30-year plan.
Jaggernauth makes connections between his work in Meyer’s lab and his ultimate goal of working in stem cell research and technology.
“The more knowledge I have about the development of neurons and the molecular mechanisms behind those decisions of the cells, the more qualified I am,” he says. “I try to spin it in a way so I can see a medical application. What I tell my dad is: I’m putting legs to the research.”
In particular, Jaggernauth is interested in BMP (bone morphogenetic protein) signaling pathways, which play a role in cellular development, cell death and stem cell regulation. Scientists are trying to develop more stem cell therapies to treat cancer and other diseases.
“Stem cell research is where the medical field is going. You can design as many drugs as you want, but they’re going to have side effects. Your own cells are not going to be rejected from your body,” he says.
“When I work in the lab, I keep that application at the front of my head. BMPs are involved in stem cell culturing of neurons. Researchers are looking into nerve therapies, so if someone is paralyzed, doctors could someday implant that person’s stem cells back into their spines, and they could walk again. That is something I would love to do. It brings tears to my eyes thinking I could help someone walk again.”
And there’s another reason why Jaggernauth wants to pursue a career in biotech. As someone who watched friends' parents lose jobs during the recession, he’s seeking a field with a bright future. He plans to apply to Clark’s fifth-year accelerated program in biology, and he hopes his eventual employer will pay for him to get an M.B.A.
“I want some job security, and I believe my biology degree from Clark will provide that,” Jaggernauth says. “I plan to put myself on a path where there’s not going to be a shortage of open doors — and I want to work in the biotech industry, where I can have a 20- or 30-year plan.”
He’s heartened by Clark’s proximity to hundreds of biotech firms.
“Worcester is an up-and-coming biotech hub. With a biology or a biochemistry degree, finding a job in Worcester or even Boston is easier than it is elsewhere in the country, especially with the number of startups we have here.”
When he's not working ...
Jaggernauth admits he doesn't have a lot of free time.
“There’s never a shortage of papers to read. There’s never a time when I don’t actually have work to do; it’s just a matter of do I want to take a break,” he says. “I take being a student very seriously. That’s my job. I take it seriously because I have to. It’s my future and my career.”
(Photo at top: Amiel Jaggernauth '18 and Néva Meyer, assistant professor of biology, in her lab.)