Even though about one in 10 individuals experience problems with fertility, the cause of infertility is often unknown. At Butler University, Lindsay Lewellyn is trying to change that.
The Associate Professor of Biological Sciences has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) totaling $413,086 over the next three years. Her research aims to learn more about how reproductive cells are normally formed, which she hopes will lead to a better understanding of how defects in their development can cause infertility.
Lewellyn, with the help of several undergraduate student-researchers, is focusing on structures called intercellular bridges. These structures aid in the formation of egg and sperm cells by connecting developing germ cells with other germ cells, or with supporting “nurse” cells. Intercellular bridges allow nutrients, proteins, and other essential materials to be shared between neighboring cells, and defects in these structures can affect development in ways that negatively impact fertility.
Using the female fruit fly as a model organism, Lewellyn’s project examines a handful of proteins involved in the development of intercellular bridges to better understand how these structures are formed and how they are able to stably connect cells during periods of significant growth. Lewellyn has already characterized four proteins she believes play a role in this process. Now, by altering the levels and localization of these proteins, she’s trying to figure out how they could work together.
“If we are able to characterize the specific roles of these proteins in the fruit fly, it’s possible that those same proteins contribute to intercellular bridge formation and stability in humans,” Lewellyn says, explaining how this research could impact our understanding of human fertility. “What’s really nice about using the fruit fly as a model is that in the developing fruit fly egg, these intercellular bridges are relatively large and easy to see.”
But of course they’re still small—only about 10 micrometers wide at most—so Lewellyn says the research team spends a lot of time at microscopes. After extracting the fly ovaries, researchers add stains and use fluorescence microscopes to help them see the proteins they’re looking for.
In offering opportunities for students to join her research lab, Lewellyn hopes to provide valuable experience in these and other common lab techniques. But she says this kind of research also teaches transferable skills that can be applied outside the lab, including critical thinking and communication.
For Umy Shaikh, a senior who has been involved with Lewellyn’s research for more than two years, improving his ability to think critically has been a central part of the experience.
“In addition to all the technical skills—which is definitely huge—I’ve learned to think like a scientist and a researcher,” says Shaikh, who majors in Spanish and minors in Chemistry and Communication. “The mindset and mentality needed for this work has been just as, if not more, important than the actual technical skills. By constantly asking new questions, I’m able to grow in the way I conduct research, and to grow in the way I approach problems.”
Shaikh decided to pursue biological research to help prepare him for medical school, which has been his goal since arriving at Butler. He was drawn to Lewellyn’s lab because of the potential impacts of her research within the field of medicine.
“The big-picture goal of the lab is really to understand the mechanisms that lead to infertility, which is a very pervasive problem in the world,” Shaikh says. “Seeing that that was the cornerstone of her research really spoke to me because I want to effect meaningful change in any way I can.”
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