Ava Udvadia, UWM associate professor of biological sciences, has been named by the University of Wisconsin System as one of three 2021 Regent Scholar recipients. The honor recognizes both Udvadia’s research into the genetics that allow healing of nerve damage and also her efforts to encourage undergraduates to participate in that work.
The UWS Regent Scholar program, which was introduced in 2014, provides a one-time $50,000 grant to individual faculty members or campus programs that undertake undergraduate research projects having the potential to foster innovation, entrepreneurship and talent development.
“This is significant recognition and a wonderful statement about the exponential impact of Dr. Udvadia’s work,” said UWM Chancellor Mark Mone. “We are extremely proud of Dr. Udvadia and her students. I commend her for carrying the torch for future young scientists and researchers.”
Udvadia’s research may one day provide new treatments for human eye injuries or diseases, such as glaucoma, that cause permanent vision loss.
Her work is inspired by fish, which can restore full function of their optical nerve cells after damage and regain lost sight. Vision requires both the light information detected by eyes and its translation by the brain, a connection made by the optical nerve cells.
This process of replacing the cellular parts needed to transmit visual information to the brain is called regeneration. However, the central nervous system cells in humans do not regenerate, even though they have the same genes and pathways used by fish.
“Fish, frogs, salamanders, mice and humans – we all run a genetic program to build this connection from the eye to the brain in the same way,” Udvadia said. “What are the instructions that fish use to turn genes on and off in order for that regeneration to happen? We want to be able to apply that ultimately to human patients.”
She and her team have identified more than 7,000 genes involved in the regeneration process. The researchers categorized which genes’ expressions peaked during the early, middle and later portions of the fish regeneration timeline. This approach has revealed the gene programming that tells the cell which genes to turn on and off for regeneration, and when to do it. They also have learned about changes in “transcription factors” – chemicals that bind to the DNA and control the genes for regeneration.
Thousands of genes involved
Now the researchers are equipped to work on the next piece of the puzzle: identify from among these transcription factors which ones are different between mammals (including humans) and fish.
Udvadia said that research experience for undergraduates equals workforce development because hard work and creativity by students make scientific discoveries possible. She described her own undergraduate research experience as powerful.
“Being able to give that experience to our undergraduates, that’s probably been the thing that I’ve loved the most at UWM,” she said. “Here, they play an active role in our research, and that’s a lot of what my lab has always been all about.”
The UW Board of Regents announced the grant recipients at its April 8 video-conferenced meeting. The two other grant recipients are Francis Mann, associate professor of chemistry at UW-Parkside, and Haijian Sun, assistant professor of computer science at UW-Whitewater. Karyn Frick, UWM professor of psychology, was among the Regent Scholars named in 2020.