Photo by Yiting Chen

Assistant Professor of Biology Sarah McMenamin has received a five-year, $800,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to support her research into the unique biological mechanisms that shape fish fins.

The fins of fish are structured by thin bony rays, and fins and their rays are found in many forms across more than 26,000 species of teleost fish. This grant will allow the McMenamin Lab to investigate the mechanisms that form these rays during both development and regeneration. 

The NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports early-career faculty who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the foundation. The program’s mission is to prepare faculty to be leaders who integrate teaching and research.

In addition to laboratory research, McMenamin will use the grant to launch a yearlong research-based undergraduate course.

Understanding how skeletal structures get to be the shape they are is important in a medical context. A better understanding of normal development can help us diagnose and treat a range of skeletal medical conditions.
Assistant Professor of Biology Sarah McMenamin

McMenamin and her students use the model organism zebrafish, a freshwater minnow that grows to about two inches in length. 

“We’ll be trying to understand the morphogenesis of the fin—how does it get its shape?” said McMenamin. The work will be relevant to other developmental processes, she added: “How do cells make organs and how are those organs the appropriate shape? What is the process by which these organs form?”

Zebrafish have a remarkable ability to regenerate fins and other organs after injury or amputation. The regenerative ability of the fins allows researchers the opportunity to study them as they regenerate in just two-and-a-half weeks. McMenamin’s work seeks to better understand how these structures “know” to regenerate and grow into the appropriate size and shape.

The NSF award is the latest funding to support McMenamin’s zebrafish research. Additional funding has come from the National Institutes of Health and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. McMenamin and colleagues most recently published findings in the peer-reviewed journal The Anatomical Record about the influence of thyroid hormones on the skeletal development of zebrafish.

“I’m interested in how organisms get to be the way they are, through development and evolution,” she said. “Understanding how skeletal structures get to be the shape they are is important in a medical context. A better understanding of normal development can help us diagnose and treat a range of skeletal medical conditions.”

Better understanding the processes that allow regeneration in some organisms (like zebrafish) and not in others (like humans) can further help pave the way for medical advances, she added. 

Furthermore, McMenamin said understanding the optimized shapes of fish fins could provide useful insights for engineers who build mechanical fish, underwater robots, or fin-shaped parts for other mechanical applications.

In addition to three graduate students and a postdoctoral scholar, McMenamin currently has seven undergraduate researchers in her lab. The yearlong research course supported by the CAREER grant will tackle additional aspects of the project. 

“Students like working with a vertebrate model,” she said. “It’s very satisfying seeing how a vertebrate changes through the course of its development. 

“I’m really excited about the course. I think the students will make a lot of progress on independent projects relevant to our larger research questions. I envision this class as a highly structured mentoring research lab, and a great opportunity for students motivated by doing research.”

— Ed Hayward | University Communications