Molecular biologist Julius Barsi hosted three student interns from Bermuda, Canada, and the Netherlands this summer for an introduction to systems biology. Their research, on purple sea urchin embryos, focused on differential gene expression analysis, the mechanism by which cells become specialized to conduct a specific “job” for the organism.
Working with Barsi (remotely, as a pandemic-related precaution), the interns analyzed data on the expression level of over 20,000 genes that the urchin employs during formation of the gut. For this research, Barsi said sea urchins are an ideal model organism because the genome has been sequenced and much is already known about the underlying gene regulatory networks that control formation of the animal.
Through their analysis, Barsi and the interns identified certain genes expressed at higher or lower levels in these cells, compared to the rest of the embryo. The work helped them to pinpoint the genes involved in the specialization of these cells while advancing basic knowledge and understanding of animal development, on a genome-wide scale.
The interns also completed their own work related to the group’s research; for example, after identifying genes, intern Matthew Nagel attempted to establish the relationship between them. This exercise helped him to understand the predictive power of a network model to decipher the effect of each gene on cell differentiation.
Barsi said he developed an internship curriculum that focused on genetic big-picture concepts while still engaging the students in detailed scientific analysis. “I felt proud of the progress they made and I came away with several ideas on how to improve this type of internship,” he said. For example, he incorporated a business-oriented software tool to keep the group tightly synchronized at all times.
He added that he was thrilled by the students’ contributions. “While several students exhibited good credentials, which is always a positive sign, I intended to take on students only if I encountered a combination of high qualifications, a demonstrated interest in the subject matter, and, where possible, close ties to Bermuda,” he said. “Much to my surprise, I found three such individuals.”
Participating interns included:
Paula Benders, 22, learned about the internship with Barsi through the Scottish Association for Marine Science, where she finished her undergraduate degree this year. She called the internship “an awesome opportunity to explore a field of science that was quite new to me. Since participating in this internship, this field of science has become more accessible to me. I would now consider getting involved in related projects and opportunities.” This fall she began a master’s degree program in marine environments at the Research Centre for Experimental Marine Biology and Biotechnology, which requires semesters at various European universities. The U.K. Associates of BIOS, which helps young marine scientists as they begin their careers, supported her work at the Institute.
Anik Grearson, 24, grew up visiting family in Bermuda and even learned SCUBA diving on island. “Working at the Institute in a research capacity has always been something I wanted to do,” she said. She completed her undergraduate degree in molecular biology and genetics at McMaster University in Ontario and said that “I’ve wanted to find ways to integrate this experience on island with my passion for marine biology. I read about Dr. Barsi’s work online and thought it sounded like a perfect project for me because it operated at the intersection of marine science and genetics.” Grearson, supported at the Institute by the Canadian Associates of BIOS, is now completing a master’s degree in marine biology at Northeastern University in Boston. She hopes to continue research in the fields of marine science and genetics.
Matthew Nagel, 19, is a Bermudian and 2021 graduate of the college preparatory Oakham School in England. He mentored with Barsi through the Bermuda Program, which pairs Bermudian students with faculty mentors for laboratory and field experiences. Nagel said he applied to the Bermuda Program because “not only is it an amazing opportunity to gain lab experience and learn more about my interests in ocean sciences, but also because much of the research being done at BIOS is so beneficial for our local community.” Following the internship, he began biochemistry studies at the University College London in England.