Faculty Spotlight


Faculty Spotlight

No bigger than a grain of rice, planarian flatworms completely regenerate—including growing a new brain—when cut. As one of the most primitive organisms that have a nervous system similar to ours, their regenerative properties allow researchers such as Mary Staehle, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering, to study how toxins affect nerve development.

“After we cut their heads off, we have something similar to a developing brain,” Staehle says. “We know that alcohol affects brain development in humans, but we have no good way of studying it. With planaria, I have the opportunity to ask, ‘Can we engineer a new way to look at this problem?’”

Her research has shown that alcohol does, in fact, slow the reacquisition of brain function in the planaria’s new brains. Next, she will study if other toxins produce similar effects, or if those effects are limited to alcohol.

Staehle collaborates with assistant professor of chemical engineering Joseph F. Stanzione, III, Ph.D., who develops green, sustainable materials to use in plastics. Together, Staehle and Stanzione study the preliminary effects of chemicals on planarian nerve development to engineer new solutions to existing problems.

Staehle includes undergraduates of all levels in her research, giving them hands-on experience with real-world applications. She has even included high school students in her research through summer research opportunities.

As the first and only researcher to study toxicity and brain development with planaria, Staehle is excited about her research. “I really like finding creative ways to solve problems,” she says. “Looking at this from a different perspective than what other scientists and engineers are doing is rewarding, and it’s a way to learn new things in a novel way.”