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Asst. Professor of Biology, Andrea Morris '91, Gets NIH Grant for "Sonic the Hedgehog"

It’s hard to believe that video game icon Sonic the Hedgehog would have anything to do with a Haverford biology professor receiving a landmark grant from the National Institutes of Health. But, in an indirect fashion, it’s true.

In August, Assistant Professor of Biology (and Class of ’91 graduate) Andrea Morris received an NIH Career Development Award for junior faculty members, under the auspices of the National Institute for Neurological Diseases and Stroke. The five-year grant, totaling over $600,000—the first of its kind awarded to a faculty member at a small liberal arts college—supports Morris’ exploration into the molecular mechanisms of visual system development, focusing on a particular gene called, yes, “sonic hedgehog” and its role in retinal axon guidance (the process of connecting the eye to the appropriate parts of the brain that allow for visual perception).

A quick explanation of that unusual moniker: Years ago, scientists discovered that the disruption of a certain gene in fruit flies caused the flies’ embryos to develop oddly spaced bristles resembling a hedgehog’s. Hence, that gene was dubbed the “hedgehog” gene. Later, the discovery that vertebrates carry a similar gene coincided with the popularity of the “Sonic the Hedgehog” game, so scientists, seeking a way to distinguish this gene from the fruit fly version, seized the obvious. We now know that there are actually many variations of the hedgehog gene in vertebrates, each with its own catchy nickname.

By using frog embryos as their model, Morris and the Haverford students who have assisted and continue to help with her research—Laura Carlson ’06, Helen Kinsman ’07, and Matthew Mansh ’08—have found that a disruption of the sonic hedgehog gene results in a miswiring of retinal axons so that they can no longer properly connect to the visual centers of the brain. Although it’s too early apply these findings to the human visual system, it’s safe to assume that retinal cells in all living things may need the sonic hedgehog gene to function.

Morris credits her students with the project’s very existence; during her first year of teaching at Haverford, they encouraged her to pursue this line of research in depth. “It wasn’t high on my list,” she admits.

In a bit of irony, it was partly due to her students’ involvement in her research that Morris faced an uphill battle when applying for her NIH grant; previously, these grants had been awarded to professors at large universities, whose labs are populated with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. “But once I showed the grant administrators the preliminary data from my project—which had been compiled by undergraduates—they realized that my students were no different than graduate students in their commitment to research,” says Morris.

So far, Morris has used the grant money to purchase an inverted fluorescent microscope that enables her students to pursue more difficult projects in her lab. She’s also been able to collaborate with a colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor of Neuroscience Jonathan Raper, who is involved in similar research concerning axon guidance. Raper serves as Morris’ research mentor and has invited her undergraduates to his lab to work alongside his graduate students.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Morris smiles.

-Brenna McBride

The intersection of College Lane and Coursey Road in front of the Cricket Pitch.

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