Students get a Savage intro to biology research

Segmented worms probably don’t thrill your soul, or even strike you as particularly exciting. They may even sound repellent. But for Rob Savage, assistant professor of biology, they present thousands of possibilities that he wants to research. The Nobel Prize committee shares his interest in invertebrates, because this year’s winners for Physiology or Medicine were honored for their studies of nematodes, a group of worms distantly related to those Savage researches.

Savage came to the College in 1997 with a strong desire to study annelids, a phylum of segmented worms. He was interested in their development because their entire body is created from ten stem cells. Savage wanted to understand developmental patterning, the process of how newly created cells know their function and position in the body. Since 1998, his research has been supported by the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Very few researchers use worms for their experiments. Although the genome of the common fruit fly has been completely mapped and much is known about their development, worms have been largely ignored. Studying an obscure organism was appealing to Savage because he did not want to merely fill in the gaps of other people’s research. Instead, he wanted to explore a new subject and see how far he could go. Going in a direction without an established map “can be frustrating, but it’s conceptually compelling,” he said. He enjoys asking the “big questions,” and said, “I hope in my career to gain a molecular understanding of these stem cells.”

Over the years, many students have participated in Savage’s research. He loves working with students and helping them through the research process. “When students become actively involved in the nitty-gritty of lab work, when they become intellectually engaged, they develop a sense of ownership of the work and that’s where the real value comes in,” he said.

Biology majors pursuing honors degrees work in his lab for their thesis projects, and he also sponsors students over the summer. Each student works on his or her own project with a specific question, which means he juggles more than one project at a time. The overall issues, however, remain the same: How are the worms put together? How do stem cells assign function to their daughter cells? What is the function of different genes in the worm DNA? And how have the function of genes change as the organisms evolved?

To answer these questions, Savage and the students in his lab work on two kinds of worms: Capitella and Helobdella. Capitella are a specific kind of polychaete; Helobdella are a specific kind of leech. Both polychaetes and leeches are classes, subsets within the annelid phylum. He chose to use two types of worms because Capitella evolved first; the contrast between the two species helps answer questions of how gene function evolved. He has found that although annelids and insects both possess segmented bodies, they generate their segments in completely different ways. Savage was also the first scientist to publish the developmental timeline and scheme for Capitella.

Pablo de los Santos ’03 is currently doing his thesis with Savage, working on cloning the caudal gene, which is likely to be involved in the organization of the posterior region of annelids. He had worked on various research projects before coming to Williams, but this is the first time he has worked in a lab for an extended period of time, and he likes feeling more invested in the research. Currently, de los Santos is applying to medical schools in the New York area, which is home for him. Although his current plans are for medical school, he said, “I’m not closing the door on research.”

Neither have Sierra Colavito ’02 or Janet Iwasa ’99, both of whom worked in Savage’s lab during their time at Williams and are currently engaged in further research. Iwasa is pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco, and working in a cell biology lab. Colavito works at a Cancer Genomics lab that is based partly at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and partly at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, but plans to go back to school for a Ph.D. in biology next year.

Both Colavito and Iwasa credit Savage’s help with their after-college plans, and both emphasize how much they enjoyed working with him. “What I realize most now, working in my current lab, is how well prepared I was coming out of Professor Savage’s lab,” Colavito said. “I was exposed to a lot of things, and he really gave me confidence in lab, and in knowing how to approach research in general – what kinds of questions to ask, what kinds of controls to do, etc.”

Savage was equally supportive the post-college trajectory of Andrew Werbrock ’00, even though it had nothing to do with research of the scientific sort. During his senior year, Werbrock applied to and was accepted by various Ph.D. in Biology programs. After graduation, he continued to work with Savage over the summer, and their work culminated in a published article. Werbrock decided to take a break from school and instead got a job with the League of Conservation Voters in Washington, D.C., whose goal is to elect environmentally conscious politicians.

He was just at the point of needing a change when he was offered a job running a local campaign on Long Island. While working on that, he met New York congressman Steve Israel. During this past political season, Werbrock served as Israel’s speechwriter and issues director, making him in charge of preparing for debates and talking points.

When asked about the transition from biology to politics, he said, “Williams is a writing-intensive education.” Because it is a liberal arts college and students take courses in a range of fields, “you end up developing in your writing a sense of what voice is appropriate for each discipline. Learning what voice is appropriate when is very important for speechwriting. . . or anything,” he said. Werbrock fully supports the idea of a liberal arts education. “It lets you go far,” he said, and the “tools you need are pretty much given to you at Williams.” He loves his current job because he is “using [his] academic mind to do things that are pragmatic. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Students past and present who have worked with Savage are emphatic about the value of undergraduate research. “Here, the undergrads are the profs’ focus,” said Santos, contrasting Williams with large universities.

“I am learning a lot now because Professor Savage made me unafraid to ask questions, which was one of the greatest things I could have learned from him,” Colavito said.

According to Iwasa, “I think doing independent research is fundamental to a complete undergraduate education since it forces you to focus on a single issue or problem, and to think about it in great depth. Throughout college we’re being taught how to think, and how to ask good questions and how to present our ideas. For me, my thesis provided a nice end point for all the skills I had learned over the course of four years.”