Rutgers Senior Explored how Fish became Land Creatures

Arriving from England, he was drawn to genetics labThomas woodThomas Wood, majoring in genetics, is getting ample research opportunities in a lab that explores the fish-to-tetrapod transition.

Growing up in England, Thomas Wood took an early interest in healing sick animals.

His neighbor in the town of Orpington, on the southeastern edge of London, was a veterinarian who showed eight-year-old Thomas how to nurse a pair of ailing cats.

“She had two very sick cats and would invite me round to show me what was wrong,” Wood says. “One of them had a really bad abscess and I cleaned out the wound.”

Inspired, Wood set out on a path toward veterinary college. But his budding passion for science and research eventually led him to an entirely different destination: The Department of Genetics at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Wood, now a School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program senior in the Class of 2020, is finishing up a remarkable undergraduate odyssey. He routinely logged up to 35 hours a week in the lab of Tetsuya Nakamura, a professor who studies the fish-to-tetrapod transition that occurred some 400 million years ago.

He has been accepted into the Genetics and Development doctoral program at Columbia University.

"Although my senior year has been cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, my Rutgers experience has been amazing," he says. “I had the opportunity to study the topic that fascinates me and get excellent preparation for graduate school.”

At Rutgers, Wood's main research interest was in the genetic mechanisms that allowed fish to evolve into land vertebrates such as mammals, birds, and reptiles.

“It’s a crucial transition,” Wood says. “There were many fundamental changes that had to occur and that continue to shape our lives today."

Working with Nakamura, Wood contributed to the available knowledge in his field. He co-authored a review paper with Nakamura that was published in the journal Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology.

In the article, the two write how state-of-the-art techniques in molecular biology and imaging are serving to expand our understanding of the genetics involved in the transition.

In the lab, Wood uses reverse genetic approaches and CT scans to identify the genes and molecular pathways involved in the origin of the neck. By “turning off” certain genes, he says, sample fish began to lose the solid connection that fuses the skull to the body, creating a gap in which a neck could develop.

“I am specifically looking at the making of the bridge between the skull and the rest of the body that became the neck and parts of the shoulder and scapula,” Wood says. “Expanding our knowledge of developmental pathways in humans is beneficial in many ways, including for understanding health, such as providing important information for the study of bone diseases.”

Wood’s own evolution—from aspiring veterinarian to genetics researcher—took hold naturally from his early interactions with veterinary surgeons. He found himself fascinated by genetic techniques such as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which is used to copy DNA or RNA samples for analysis.

“It was clear that these basic techniques could push the boundaries of what we know about medicine and genetic diseases,” he says.

As it became evident that his interests went beyond veterinary science, one of the scientists he was working with in England advised him to seek out an American research university.

“And it just so happened that my guidance counselor received an email from Rutgers expressing interest in students and offering to help facilitate the process,’’ he said. “This set me on my 3,500 mile long path away from veterinary medicine in the UK to the genetics program here at Rutgers.”

It is a journey he is happy he made. The Department of Genetics, like others in the life sciences, offers ample opportunity for undergraduate research.

“It has been a fantastic situation,” Wood says.

He wrote his senior honors thesis on "The Evolutionary Origin of the Neck: The Genetic Mechanisms Behind Girdle Development and Evolution in Zebrafish."

He also found himself right at home with the range of activities available at Rutgers. He got involved with the Association of Undergraduate Geneticists, the Filipino Martial Arts Club, and Leadership and Experiential Learning.

Wood also received the Enrico P. Veltri Scholarship for the Life Sciences and the Duncan and Nancy Macmillan Award for Research Excellence.

Read the article on SAS News and Events.