“I believe in the power of studying animals that can naturally accomplish what we want to do therapeutically in humans.”
“When I was in sixth grade, my science class was assigned a report and I did mine on the structure of an atom,” Morris recalls. “I decided at that time that I just loved science and that I would become a nuclear physicist.”
But that dream changed as Morris grew up—she majored in French as an undergraduate at Florida State University and worked at a newspaper in Tallahassee. A few years into her professional life, Morris’ scientific ambitions came back into focus. She left the paper to pursue an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, again at Florida State.
“I fell in love with the idea of trying to figure out how genes are turned on and off and how gene expression is regulated,” she says. She wanted a closer look at how creatures as complex as humans start as a single cell.
While at Emory, Morris marveled at the discovery that the gene PAX6 initiates a huge cascade of molecular events resulting in embryos’ successful eye development. Although initial PAX6 studies were done in fruit flies, Morris knew the work could matter to people. In humans, she notes, “the same sort of on-and-off switch is at work.”
As one of 22 early-career researchers selected as Pew Biomedical Scholars in 2011, Morris opted to watch eye development—and its potential mishaps—in action within zebrafish. Their embryos are transparent, allowing scientists to observe development unfolding. And unlike humans, adult zebrafish can regenerate damaged tissues and organs, including eyes.
Morris then earned her doctorate at Emory University in genetics and molecular biology. Along the way, one of biology’s most fundamental questions came to her attention.
“I believe in the power of studying animals that can naturally accomplish what we want to do therapeutically in humans,” Morris says. She envisions her work leading to ways to reverse vision-wrecking cell damage wrought by disorders such as retinitis pigmentosa, macular degeneration and retinal detachment.
Morris and her team are researching the genes governing how rod and cone precursor cells differentiate into the structures necessary for vision. They also examine transcription factors, powerful molecules in cells that can switch specific genes on or off.
Morris hopes her work will eventually allow clinicians to seed damaged human eye tissues with cells that would develop into new rods and cones and wire up with the surrounding cells in the retina. If she can pull that off, a therapeutic strategy for millions of people with lost or damaged vision could be in reach.
But much work on countless fish stands between Morris and those vision-restoring treatments. “This research requires innovative, risk-taking projects that are hard to get funding for, but which Pew is looking to support,” she offers. The Biomedical scholars program award will help her see it through.
See more profiles here.
Photo of Ann Morris by Mark Cornelison/University of Kentucky.
Since 1985, Pew’s biomedical programs have been supporting promising beginning researchers in the health sciences—particularly young investigators with innovative approaches and ideas. This article is the second in a "Biomedical Researcher of the Month" series highlighting Pew’s biomedical programs.
- Date added:
- Feb 21, 2013
Edward De Robertis, National Advisory Committee member and founding member of the Pew Latin American Fellows Program, has been elected into the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. De Robertis, a native of Uruguay, is the N. Sprague Professor of Biological Chemistry at University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—best known for identifying genetic patterns conserved throughout evolution.More info
On May 9, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced that 27 of the nation’s top biomedical researchers—including seven Pew scholars—will become HHMI investigators and will receive the flexible support necessary to move their research in creative new directions. The Pew scholars named HHMI investigators are Peter Baumann (2003), Michael Dyer (2004), Nicole King (2004), Tirin Moore (2004), Dyche Mullins (2000), Michael Rape (2007), and Rachel Wilson (2005).More info
2009 Pew Biomedical Scholar Charles Mullighan was part of a research team at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital which recently found mutations responsible for more than half of a subtype of childhood brain tumors. Their paper in Nature Genetics pinpointed alterations in two genes that increased the risk of low-grade gliomas—the most common childhood tumors of the brain and spinal cord—and identified an existing drug as a possible treatment.More info
Salil Lachke, a 2012 Pew scholar and assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Delaware, has been selected by the Alcon Research Institute as a 2013 Young Investigator. As one of just eight researchers worldwide to receive the $50,000 grant, Dr. Lachke will continue his work on an online tool he created to discover genes related to glaucoma and other eye diseases.More info
Jeff Gore, a 2011 Pew Scholar and assistant professor of physics at MIT, has been awarded a four-year, $1,131,603 grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences – one of the 27 National Institutes of Health – to pursue research into cooperation and cheating in the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.More info
Ben Stanger, a 2009 Pew scholar and assistant professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, has demonstrated that cells can change their identities under normal conditions in the body. In a study published in Genes and Development, Dr. Stanger pinpointed the gene that allows the main type of liver cells in mammals to convert into the cells lining bile ducts.More info
To understand how embryos develop, many researchers look to animal models such as worms and frogs. But Mary Gehring, a 2011 Pew Biomedical Scholar and assistant professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, turns to plants—even weeds.More info
Learn more about the women scientists of Pew's Biomedical Scholar's Program and help celebrate Women's history month.More info
In celebration of what would have been Albert Einstein’s 134th birthday, FoxNews.com ran an article highlighting young researchers, including 2011 Pew scholar Ann Morris. Thanks to her creative research on vision in zebrafish, Dr. Morris was mentioned among scientists who are “poised to change the way we live today, and will continue to influence our culture in the coming decades.More info
Dinu Florin Albeanu, a 2012 Pew Scholar, was profiled in National Geographic’s “Only Human” series, which highlighted his success as a Romanian scientist. Having lived in Bucharest for most of his life, Dr. Albeanu recognizes the challenges facing Romania’s scientific enterprise. Since relocating to the United States, the assistant professor of neurology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has co-founded a summer program for aspiring neurologists in Romania. More info
2011 Pew Scholar Wins Paul Allen Distinguished Investigators Award to Unlock Fundamental Questions in Biology
Jeff Gore, 2011 Pew Scholar and assistant professor of physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has won the Paul Allen Distinguished Investigators Award to Unlock Fundamental Questions in Biology. The award, announced today by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, provides $7.5 million in exploratory grant funding to a carefully selected group of scientists who will embark on five new pioneering research projects that aim to unlock fundamental questions in biology. Dr. Gore will use single-celled yeast to explore how ideas from game theory can provide insight into cellular decision making.More info
Dr. Michael "Micha" Rape, a 2007 Pew Scholar, has been named winner of The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science for his work on ubiquitination, a process which "tags" damaged or bad proteins for destruction, as it relates to many diseases, including cancer or neurodegeneration.More info