A “fellow” scientist: Elizabeth Collins and paralysis
Posted August 5, 2012
When Elizabeth Collins was in high school in Jefferson City, Mo., she ran cross-country and track. Now, as a senior at the University of Missouri majoring in biology, she still enjoys running, swimming and other physical activities. It should come as no surprise that someone as active as Elizabeth would pursue research in a subject that prevents others from being mobile: paralysis.
Through her work in Dr. Andrew McClellan’s lab the last 18 months, Elizabeth has been energized about her research. Elizabeth says McClellan has been very helpful in providing her with the information she needs to know to understand her research and in explaining what she is doing and why she is doing it.
For her research into paralysis, the first step was understanding movement. Movement is mediated by the nervous system. Your brain and spinal cord control all of the movements your body makes by sending electric signals to your muscles, thus stimulating motion.
Our nervous systems are like large biological circuits. Like circuits, if there is a break in the wire (or a break in the spinal cord), the signals being transmitted will not reach their destination and the muscles don’t move. Once damage is caused to the central nervous system, it can’t be repaired. Damage to the central nervous system has detrimental impacts on humans and other vertebrates.
The McClellan lab is using an organism, called a lamprey, which can recover from paralysis after experiencing spinal injury. When a lamprey’s spinal cord is injured or severed, it can regenerate its neurons and spinal cord, and thus does not suffer from permanent paralysis. The lab is working to find answers to several questions. How does the lamprey regenerate its nerves? By understanding the mechanisms the lamprey uses to regenerate is nervous system, could paralysis be prevented in humans?
Elizabeth is looking forward to finding answers to some of these questions through her undergraduate research. After graduation, she would like to continue her education in the pursuit of a career in either research or in science education.