Research and development: welcome Dr Megan Wilson to RealScientists

This week we move from the west coast of Australia to the deep south of New Zealand, to welcome developmental biologist Dr Megan Wilson of the University of Otago, Dunedin.

otago022968Megan’s research is in the field of developmental biology, understanding the formation of an adult form from a fertilized egg.  She is particularly interested in researching the molecular control of pathways that underly embryonic development, and how these developmental pathways have changed throughout animal evolution.  To this end she have made use of a number of developmental models including mice, Drosophila (the venerable fruit fly, hero of genetics research), the honeybee Apis mellifera, and most recently sea squirts – which as chordates, and the closest invertebrate group to the vertebrate lineage, can tell us a lot about the evolution of developmental pathways in early vertebrates.

Megan began her scientific life as a biochemist, characterising the structure and function of sigma factors (gene regulatory proteins) involved in infection and virulence in the pathogenic bacteria Pseudomonas, before changing path and joining the group of internationally renown developmental biologist Prof Peter Koopman at the Institute for Molecular Biosciences, University of Queensland, working on the molecular genetics of mammalian sex and gonad development. Megan then spent several productive years as a research fellow in the Laboratory for Evolution and Development at the University of Otago, run by Dr Peter Dearden. After her appointment as a lecturer in the Department of Anatomy at Otago she has established her own research group in the form of the Developmental Biology Laboratory, using both vertebrate and invertebrate models to explore how gene expression is regulated during embryonic development and how these pathways evolve. Having been part of the sequencing consortium which published the genomes of Honeybee and Aphid, particularly involved in annotation of the developmental genes in both, she has continued to use next-generation sequencing approaches to investigate developmental biology questions in her current model systems. You can find out more about Megan’s research and her lab group at


Harvesting sea squirts is a glamorous business

 Away from the lab, Megan is passionate about education and outreach. Aside from teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students as a lecturer, Megan is also involved in outreach education activities at local primary schools, setting up a mini-undergraduate lab for the junior classes on human anatomy and on honeybees, which the children and teachers enjoyed. Megan writes about New Zealand developmental biology for the Node, the community hub for developmental biologists run by leading journal Development. (Longer-term RealScientists followers may recall the Node was coordinated for some years by former RS curator Eva Amsen aka @easternblot.) Megan is also one of two NZ representatives for the Australia and New Zealand Society for Cell and Development Biology (ANZSCDB), and following their annual meeting this year at Combio in Perth, is now leading the society’s embryonic push into social media. Embryonic, heh. See what I did there. You can follow the ANZSCDB’s baby steps into social media on Twitter and Facebook. RealScientists isn’t Megan’s first foray into rotation-curation Twitter accounts, following a very popular stint on her national account @PeopleofNZ in August. (Next week’s curator @mrhawkes has also taken science communication to national ro-cur levels, and we’re very excited to have them both on RS in the next fortnight.)

Muscle development in the developing mouse embryo. Not particularly related to what Megan does, but pretty.

Muscle development in the developing mouse embryo. Not particularly related to what Megan does, but pretty.

So why development? In her introductory column at the Node, Megan explained why she became a developmental biologist:

The NZ developmental biology community is vibrant and diverse, and overlaps with a range of other disciplines, from medical research to evolution and ecology. It wasn’t always the case, though.  As a Biochemistry undergrad, and then a PhD student at Otago in the late 1990s, there were very few options for studying developmental biology. My interest in developmental biology came from wanting to know more about the genetic disorder my brother had, Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC). TSC affects multiple organ systems, but particularly the kidney, brain and skin, causing benign tumors to grow.  I wondered why these tumors occurred in only a few organs and why symptoms varied so much between individuals.  In order to really understand the origin of this disorder, I had to learn a little developmental biology, became fascinated by it, and this sparked a career shift.

We asked Megan our usual set of questions and she gave this set of answers:

1. How did you end up in science?
Science is what I enjoyed most at school.  I also did history and classics, but always found out something new when I studied science.
2.  What keeps you in it?
I still enjoy it, learning new things everyday and making new discoveries myself – trying to solve questions and doing the experiments to find the answers. I also love teaching, seeing students develop into scientists.
3. What do you like to do in your spare time (hobbies kids etc everything!)
I go to the gym, playing with the kids (Mr6 and Mr4), taking care of the hens (we have six chickens), reading… not much spare time though!
4. Where do you work and live, and why?
I work at the Dept of Anatomy as a lecturer, at the University of Otago in Dunedin – where I grew up, and did my PhD before returning here for a research position. The plan was for just 3 years but we have now been back in Dunedin for almost 9. Dunedin has a great lifestyle, especially to raise kids in, and a fantastic research-focused university environment. Having grown up here, it’s also important to me being close to family.
5. If you could do any project, with money no object, what would you do?
The hard thing would be to pick one project over so many I would want to do. It would likely to be examining the role of some of my favourite transcription factors in development, via ChIP-seq and transgenics, to understand how they act in controlling gene regulation, how they integrate multiple signals to make a functional tissue/animal. At the moment we’re doing some of this using mice and sea squirts embryos.
Please welcome Megan to RealScientists for her week of curation!


James is a recovering scientist and escaped postdoc who works in research management at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He's now retired from active @RealScientists duty, after serving from the project's beginnings in 2013 through to mid 2015. When not managing research, surviving #PlanetParenthood or pretending not to be an expat Australian in the Deep South of NZ, he tweets @theotherdrsmith.

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