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Growing Interest Prompts New Research Possibilities

Ryan King (Biology) is one of 20 new faculty members and others welcomed to campus at the start of the 2014-15 academic year. King (above), who joins St. Norbert as assistant professor, is studying regeneration. It’s a process evident in simple organisms like flatworms, one that prompts two questions: What might we learn that could help us stimulate regeneration of damaged organs in humans? What might be unique to the regeneration process in worms that could lead to the development of drugs to combat parasitic infections? 

King sat down to talk with our contributor Jeff Kurowski about his research, his teaching and the events that brought him to St. Norbert.

You did both your undergraduate work and your Ph.D. at University of Wisconsin-Madison. What first drew you to biology?
I declared pre-med initially, but by the time I had gotten into the university, I switched to wildlife ecology. At that point in time there were no jobs in wildlife ecology so I switched to secondary education and biology. I took this developmental biology course in the spring of my sophomore year. It was the first time I ever got the sense that we don’t know everything about biology. You get all these facts over and over drilled into you and it was this class that opened my eyes that we don’t know everything. There are still exciting and interesting problems about how life works and begins and carries on. I became really interested and fascinated with that.

A post-doc experience in the Newmark Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign followed. Can you tell us more about your research interests?
I chose to work on these little flatworms called planarians. They are amazing because you can cut them into hundreds of tiny pieces and each piece can regrow into a whole new animal. It’s a phenomenal process of regeneration. My interests include, how can you remake parts of your body and how do you know what parts of the body are missing? The regeneration process in planarians is really fast. It takes about a week. They will regrow and re-specify most of the major organ systems, including the brain. The system I care about is a kidney-like system called the nephridium. 

Do they take a lot of looking after?
Temperature is important. We don’t want [planarians] to be too warm. The water quality is pretty big. They eat pureed calf liver. We mush it up and feed it to them. We keep them clean and happy. They are pretty easy. They live in Ziploc container boxes. They don’t require a fancy aquarium. I’m hoping to slip in a little lab session at the end of the developmental biology course so the students get a chance to work with planarians and test some variables on what affects their regenerability.

What drew you to St. Norbert?
I was torn between wanting to do research full-time or to go to a smaller place and teach. I looked for post-doc projects that would allow me to go in either direction. As I came to the close of the post-doc chapter, I thought about how what I was really enjoying about my job was my interactions with other people, being able to share my excitement and enthusiasm with the younger crowd and getting them interested in doing research. I started looking for job openings and St. Norbert is an ideal fit. … It’s a really nice balance, teaching courses of focus, and then there’s also this big interest here in getting students involved in research. What drew me to the college was being able to have the best of both worlds. I get to do some research and get to do some teaching in a really nice environment. 

You’ll be meeting your first students next week. Now that classes are about to begin, what are you most excited to teach?
I’m going to be doing General Biology 1 and Developmental Biology. The developmental biology class is for the students in the upper classes in the biology program. That will be exciting for me, but it’s not as though I’m not interested in Gen Bio. You have to have a good foundation to be able to understand everything that comes after it. Developmental Biology is my first time developing a whole course from scratch. The part that has me slightly terrified right now is the lab component for the course. I’ve never actually had a lab section for a course in developmental biology. It’s the most exciting thing for me, to study live embryos of worms, fruit flies and chicks. Manipulating embryos with their own hands provides students a perspective that goes beyond what is possible from looking at images in a textbook.

Are you thinking about introducing any new courses?
There is a huge uptick here in the number of students declaring biology as a major. We are a pretty small department, so accommodating all the students who want the opportunity to do research, hands-on, is going to be pretty tough. One of the things I would like to do, if I can get some external funding, is to offer a lab course for sophomores that basically takes planarians and figures out what their genes are. What happens when we take a gene away? The students would do some basic cell biology. It would be an opportunity to bring in 24 students for a semester to get them more involved in research. It would involve the basic scientific method of breaking down and trying to answer some questions about what genes are important for regeneration, and identifying those. 

Sept. 2, 2014