Pioneer of microRNA visits Parker!

Francis W. Parker School Alumni Email
Parker students learned about the life and work of internationally renowned geneticist and pioneer of microRNA Victor R. Ambros, Ph.D. in a recent Morning Ex.

As the Silverman Professor of Natural Sciences and professor in the Program in Molecular Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Dr. Ambros focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms of gene regulation by microRNAs and how microRNAs function in regulatory networks affecting development and disease. In 1993, his lab was the first to discover microRNA—single-stranded molecules that play a role in gene regulation.

In opening this Morning Ex, Dr. Ambros shared a bit about his personal history, growing up as a member of a large family on a Vermont farm. He pointed out that, as children, we are all natural scientists—we entered this world curious about how the world works, open to experimentation and testing limits. In his words, “Doing science is a natural human instinct.”

Dr. Ambros talked about about his education and his early interest in amateur astronomy, which led to his first published scientific result in the May 1970 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine. He outlined his serpentine path through college, beginning in 1971 at MIT and emerging from the other end in 1985 as Professor Ambros with a ton of help and encouragement from many folks along the journey.

When describing how he and his lab discovered microRNA in 1993, Ambros shared that they were trying to answer these questions: How do animals get their unique shapes? What are the mechanisms at work that makes humans look like humans, dogs look like dogs, insects look like insects and the like?

He then introduced the audience to a small nematode or worm known as C. elegans, which was instrumental to him and his team in their groundbreaking work. This worm was easy to culture, had a very fast lifecycle—growing from egg to adult in two and a half days—and shares a common ancestor with humans. Ambros shared a time-lapse video showing the cellular divisions apparent in a C. elegans embryo during a 16-hour period and the resulting worms. By comparing worms during their relatively short lifecycle, Ambros and his team were able to identify a number of mutant variants, which demonstrated how the worm’s skin could determine both shape and mobility. These variations were linked to a previously unknown regulator of development known as microRNAs, which all animals (including humans) have!

Before opening the floor to questions from the audience, Dr. Ambros reminded all in attendance that science is useful, fun, social and international. Following the Morning Ex, he met with Upper School Advanced Biology students for a more detailed look at his work and accomplishments.
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