MBL Awards Inaugural E.E. Just Fellowships to Two Undergraduates

MBL Awards Inaugural E.E. Just Fellowships to Two Undergraduates
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By Stephanie McPherson

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is pleased to announce the recipients of the inaugural E.E. Just Fellowship Awards, which enable outstanding undergraduates to attend one of the MBL’s acclaimed Advanced Research Training Courses.

Isa Alvarez conducting research at the MBL. Credit: Megan Costello

Natasha Baas-Thomas

The two recipients are Natasha Baas-Thomas, who majored in biology at Reed College, and Isa Alvarez, who studied history of medicine with a minor in human rights at the University of Chicago. Both are graduating seniors who previously showed great potential as undergraduate researchers at the MBL. The E.E. Just Fellowship awardees are from underrepresented minorities in science and have up to five years to attend an MBL course.

“These are people who are really excellent students. They epitomize not only the legacy of E. E. Just, an African-American scientist who excelled in research at a young age, but also the kind of lifelong learners who we hope will form lasting relationships with the MBL,” says Jocelyn Malamy, MBL’s interim Director of Education.

Ernest Everett Just was one of the first African-Americans to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago (in experimental embryology, in 1916). Just spent many summers conducting research at the Marine Biological Laboratory, studying fertilization processes using the eggs of marine invertebrates. He was introduced to the MBL by his mentor, Frank R. Lillie, a Professor of Embryology at UChicago and the second director of the MBL (1908-1925). Just discovered an important aspect of cell cleavage while researching his dissertation and published his most important work, The Biology of the Cell Surface, in 1939.

Baas-Thomas conducted research at the MBL over the summer of 2018 as part of the NSF-REU Biological Discovery in Woods Hole Program. She studied synaptic plasticity in a mouse model associated with Parkinson’s disease with MBL Whitman Investigator Elizabeth Jonas of Yale University.

Ernest Everett Just in 1925.

“Being able to talk to different scientists and…see how they collaborate was really cool,” says Baas-Thomas. “It’s really nice that all these great scientists are willing to share their expertise and teach undergraduates and recent grads.” Baas-Thomas is returning to MBL this summer as a course assistant for Neural Systems & Behavior.

“Natasha went above and beyond the level of most students,” says Jonas. “She mastered difficult concepts, has very high standards and takes pride in the successful outcome of her work.”

Alvarez has been part of the MBL community every summer since she started college, including through a UChicago Metcalf Award in 2016. She has conducted research on sea-star wasting disease with MBL Director of Research David Mark Welch, on the tongue microbiome with Associate Scientist Jessica Mark Welch, and on imaging sea urchins with Whitman Investigator Mark Terasaki. Alvarez plans to attend medical school to focus on reproductive health.

Alvarez has enjoyed the opportunities provided by MBL. “Yes, I had principal investigator that I was very close with and that I was constantly working alongside, but [there were all of these other learning opportunities],” she says. “It wasn’t just about my research, but it was about the path that you can take toward doing research as a future scientist.”

Alvarez’s work ethic impressed her first mentor, David Mark Welch. “Extracting microbiome samples turned out to be more difficult than either of us had anticipated, but Isa kept at it,” he said. “Isa brings energy and enthusiasm to experimental biology and would thrive in the intensive laboratory environment of an MBL Advanced Research Training course, such as Embryology or Physiology.”