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How this TCNJ biologist is getting a worm’s eye view of cellular stability

TCNJ biology professor Nina Peel in her laboratory.

Meet Nina Peel, TCNJ’s resident worm wrangler. 

In her lab, Peel looks through her microscope, examining thousands of squiggly worms known scientifically as C. elegans. She uses these minuscule creatures as a model organism — a non-human species used in a lab — to help her understand biological processes and phenomena.

Peel is looking into the cells of these worms at how elements of the cytoskeleton — the cellular equivalent of the human skeleton — help cells change their shape to perform different jobs.

“Within a cell, microtubules play a role similar to a human skeleton to help maintain cellular shape,” Peel, an associate professor of biology, explains. “But they also act as a transport highway and even as lassos to catch chromosomes and other things and drag them around.”

microscope view of c. elegans worms
Microscopic C. elegans are a model organism for biologists like Peel. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Because they perform multiple and different jobs, microtubules must sometimes switch between being very stable and being dynamic. Peel’s work looks at how microtubules can be altered to make them more or less stable, depending on the job they’re doing at that moment. 

In fall 2019, Peel received a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to aid her research, but the project stalled when the pandemic hit in early 2020. Now, thanks to the support of the Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize, she’ll have focused time to produce data for the grant.

Additionally, Peel will establish CRISPR editing technology in her lab at TCNJ, which will allow undergraduate students to gain hands-on experience in this cutting-edge technology that allows researchers to edit DNA sequences to change how a gene functions.

“I’ve had students working in my lab almost from day one; they are totally integral to my research,” Peel said. In her 10 years at the college, she’s worked with more than 40 students through independent research and TCNJ’s Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience program.

The results of the research will aid in the understanding of human disease, specifically neurodegeneration (e.g. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS) among other disorders.  

“My research may help us to understand nerve cell degeneration, but in addition, learning about how microtubule stability is regulated might help us to understand neuronal function — and dysfunction — more generally,” she said.

The Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize is made possible through the generosity of former TCNJ president R. Barbara Gitenstein and her husband Don Hart.

— Emily W. Dodd ’03


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