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Aishwarya Nugooru is studying how abnormalities and mutations in nesprin proteins might affect neural development. Assistant professor of biomedical engineering Daniel E. Conway, Ph.D., is one of her UROP mentors.
Aishwarya Nugooru is studying how abnormalities and mutations in nesprin proteins might affect neural development. Assistant professor of biomedical engineering Daniel E. Conway, Ph.D., is one of her UROP mentors.

UROP Spotlight: Using Zebrafish to Study Neuron Development

By Leah Small

University Public Affairs

VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) gives undergraduate students a chance to conduct real-world studies alongside nationally and internationally recognized faculty. It often represents one of the biggest highlights of their undergraduate careers.

Aishwarya Nugooru, a senior studying biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and pre-medicine. Through UROP, she is investigating how abnormalities and mutations in nesprin proteins might affect neural development. Nesprins are found in the nuclear membrane, which encases the nucleus of cells. The proteins are responsible for maintaining the structural integrity of the nuclear cell membrane. Mutations in the nesprin gene are associated with some forms of muscular dystrophies.

Nugooru investigated the role of nesprins in neural and muscular development using a zebrafish model in the neural development lab of Gregory Walsh, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences in collaboration with Daniel E. Conway, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering. The researchers hypothesize that the inactivation of nesprin could result in defects in neuronal migration, or movement of neurons from origin to final position in the brain that occurs during an embryo’s gestation. Neuronal migration is essential for the assembly of neural circuits during brain development. Defects in neuronal migration could lead to several disorders.

Studying the impact of nesprin abnormalities in zebrafish models could later be translated to clinical settings to better devise therapeutic strategies for patients with mutations in nesprin.

Nugooru was responsible for much of the benchwork of the study, which included regulating nesprin expression in the embryos, imaging, embryo microscopy and breeding the zebrafish.

“In class I had learned about neurons and their functions but applying my knowledge by performing experiments and working on the in vivo model definitely helped me to further grasp the concepts,” she said. “It felt so much more abstract when learning in the classroom and from textbooks. But now I really understand the molecular mechanisms behind it and the connections to real-life applications.”

“[The program] prepares undergraduates to be future scientists and researchers,” she said. “I believe that being able to clearly articulate your research to all audiences is crucial. UROP gives students the opportunity to do this before entering their careers.”