Sure, there are collaborations with faculty here at Butler and other institutions, including the University of Massachusetts, but “students do the vast majority of the work,” said Kowalski. This work includes growing and maintaining the C. elegans worms, generating new strains of worms by performing mating crosses, doing molecular biology, fluorescence microscopy, and biochemical studies. They also do data analysis, help write and present their work at conferences here and around the country, and co-author all publications. 

So why C. elegans? Even though they only grow to about one-and-a-half millimeters in length and only have 302 neurons and 959 total cells, humans have surprisingly a lot in common with the worm. Yes, we have a lot more neurons (hundreds of billions) and quite a few more cells (around 60 trillion); but, we have a similar number of genes—around 20,000— and many of those genes are the same. As Kowalski states, “Although our nervous systems are much more complex, the basic organization of the circuitry is the same.” 

What are Kowalski and her students hoping to learn from their research? They’re interested in a family of proteins called ubiquitin system enzymes and the role these enzymes and their targets play in controlling neurons’ signals. “We use the C. elegans neuromuscular junction (the point of contact—or synapse—where motor neurons signal to muscle cells) as a model to investigate ubiquitin enzymes,” explained Kowalski. 

A cell biologist by training, Kowalski is interested in understanding how cells carry out their functions. She’s intrigued by the nervous system because it is a collection of cells that are working in both a “coordinated and tightly regulated fashion to allow information processing, storage, and transmission” (i.e., communication between neurons). This communication is disrupted in various neurological and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer disease. 

The potential impact of their research is enormous. As Kowalski puts it, “Understanding how communication between neurons is regulated in a healthy nervous system is critical to understanding what goes wrong in these diseases—and how we might be able to effectively treat them.”