Small Fish, Big Impact
Zebrafish Give Professor Clues Into Human Disease.
Professor Gerald B. Downes rushes into his laboratory, his mind whirring with possibilities for research that could lead to cures for diseases. “Sometimes I forget to say, ‘Hi,’” says the professor of neurobiology. “I just say, ‘Here is what we need to do.’”
Downes obviously is a man on a mission—actually several missions. With the help of a 10-member lab team and thousands of zebrafish, an ideal animal for studying neurobiology, Downes investigates neurological diseases with an eye toward finding treatments. As a professor, he wants to do more than teach biology; he wants his students to be critical and strategic thinkers. He selects undergraduates and offers them meaningful research experiences that give them an advantage in applying to medical school, graduate school, or the workforce. It is also important to him to reach out to the community to give young people an image of a scientist unlike Einstein or Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movies.
The two-inch fish, commonly found in home aquariums, shares 70 percent of the human genetic code.
His love of teaching is apparent in his work with local children and with undergraduates, who are among his biggest fans. “He expects a lot out of you,” says Meghann Zapcic ’16. “At the same time, he gives you all the tools to do the tasks he assigns.” Zapcic worked in the Downes lab for three years and took one of his courses. A graduate of Commonwealth Honors College, she majored in psychology on the neuroscience track and now attends Temple University School of Medicine. She says Downes invests in his students and creates significant research opportunities for undergraduates. “We weren’t just washing glassware and putting things into an autoclave,” she says. “We had an integral part in taking care of the fish and performing experiments.”
SO, WHY ZEBRAFISH?
The zebrafish seldom grows longer than 1.6 inches but packs tremendous power for scientific research. Its genome has been fully sequenced and it's the first vertebrate to be cloned. Zebrafish studies have produced advances in developmental biology, oncology, toxicology, reproductive studies, genetics, neurobiology, environmental sciences, stem cell research, and regenerative medicine.
Kelly Anne McKeown ’02G, ’10PhD, Downes’s first doctoral student, now teaches at Westfield State University and is on the NSF grant team. As part of the grant, two of her students joined the Downes lab for six weeks over the summer. They conducted research and attended a Downes-led weekly seminar to review published papers. Downes prods students to answer questions and explains the intricacies and conventions of science and research. For example, he explained the significance of the order of authors listed on research papers: the first author named completed the bulk of the experiments.
McKeown says her goal was to teach at a small liberal arts college and worried that Downes, who was not yet tenured and faced publish-or-perish pressures, would steer her solely into research, which would help advance his own work. On the contrary, she recalls, “He was very open to listening to me and very helpful in getting me teaching experience.”
Downes, who earned his PhD in 1999 at Washington University in St. Louis and did six years of postdoctoral research at the University of Pennsylvania, joined the University of Massachusetts Amherst faculty in 2005. Massachusetts is his home state and UMass Amherst is the alma mater of his father, Stephen F. Downes, who earned a graduate degree in engineering in 1981. He says he and his wife, Kimball Prentiss (a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and a 2002 graduate of UMass Medical School), enjoy Amherst with its easy access to nature. But with a three-year-old son and infant daughter, Downes’s time for snowboarding, hiking, and cycling are limited.
When he completed his postdoctoral work on mutant zebrafish genes that control swimming, he spurned the idea of working at a private university. He explains: “I wanted to do something for the greater good, and public service and public universities are a noble calling.”
Working at UMass, with the support of the NSF, his students, and colleagues, along with the big contributions of many small fish, Downes and his research hold the promise of help for people with debilitating neurological problems.