Impact of Giving

Undergrad researcher a superstar in the lab

Author: Development and Donor Relations

Posted on Dec 16, 2022

Category: Innovation

Lauren McGrath’s passion for science research was ignited at UNB before she even had begun her first year.

Lauren was a high school student in 2019 when UNB Fredericton hosted the Canada-Wide Science Fair. She said that presenting her research to a national audience made her realize she could pursue science as a career. “It was amazing to me,” she said. “It put me on the path to doing more research.”

Now in her fourth year of the biology-chemistry honours program, Lauren’s research is breaking new ground, optimizing a technique called “expansion microscopy” to circumvent the limitations of conventional microscopes by making the sample itself larger. Lauren describes it in very simple terms, discussing the zebrafish embryos used in her research:

“It’s really hard [with a traditional microscope] to get high-resolution images where you can see a lot of detail, but also have a large field of view. Expansion microscopy is the idea where you take the sample and then instead of looking at it closer, you just expand it and make it bigger.” By embedding the samples in a gel and placing them in water, they can expand to a point that their detail is easy to discern with a microscope.

“This is such a simple idea I’m amazed people didn’t try it decades ago, and I’m even more amazed that it works,” said Lauren’s research supervisor, Dr. Bryan Crawford. Dr. Crawford shared in the award that helped make Lauren’s research possible.

Funded through the generosity of an anonymous donor, the Science Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Award is co-presented annually to a student and their faculty supervisor. It provides $6,000 in support toward the employment of a promising undergraduate student during the semester leading up to their final-year research project for a BSc Honours by Thesis. This year, the award went to Lauren and Dr. Crawford.

“Lauren has been a real superstar since she started in the lab, and the SURE Award was central to her success,” said Dr. Crawford, adding that they are excited by the potential this technique shows in other applications. “Lauren has already seen things we’ve never seen before; we’re very excited to put this approach to work in combination with approaches like xenografting, in which human tumour cells are transplanted into zebrafish embryos, so we can see how the tumour cells use the tissue remodeling system during metastasis.”

Through a partnership with researchers at University College London, Lauren is also using expansion microscopy to get an unprecedented look at a process that occurs in the retina during development of the eye. This research has exciting potential for understanding many cases of blindness in humans.

This innovative research is winning Lauren accolades beyond UNB. In September, she was invited to present her findings at the 9th annual Atlantic Regional Developmental Biology Symposium in Halifax, NS, where she won the award for best presentation. “Not only is she doing extremely challenging and unique-in-the-world science, she’s demonstrated an amazing aptitude for science communication,” said Dr. Crawford.

That aptitude for communicating science brought Lauren full circle this past summer, when UNB again hosted the Canada-Wide Science Fair and she was able to participate, this time as a volunteer.

“None of this would have been possible without the SURE award, the support of Dr. Crawford, and my high school teachers who encouraged me to do research in the first place,” said Lauren. “I am very grateful.”

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