Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology
Member, Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
I am a scientist who studies birth defects. My discipline is called teratology or developmental toxicology. Much of my research has involved studying the various types of birth defects that result from exposure of an embryo to alcohol at very specific times during development. One of the major findings from my laboratory’s studies is that alcohol can cause permanent brain damage if exposure occurs at very early stages of embryonic development — stages that occur prior to the time that most women would even realize that they are pregnant.
I started college with an interest both in science and art and with plans of becoming a medical illustrator. During college my emphasis shifted from art to biology and I went on to get a Ph.D. in Anatomy. The mentors for my dissertation research were clinical geneticists and from them I learned a lot about human birth defects. After completing my degree, I went to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill as a postdoctoral fellow. During my fellowship I began to use scanning electron microscopy to examine early mouse embryos. This technique provides 3-D like views and the opportunity to readily visualize the complex structural changes that occur during development. A collection of these images has been assembled as an embryology tutorial that is available at www.med.unc.edu/embryo_images. Images such as these have proven invaluable for teaching, an activity that I have enjoyed as a major component of my academic career.
Throughout my career my research has continued to employ techniques that have a significant visual component. Currently, this includes high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). As shown in the figure below, MRI allows appreciation of a spectrum of defects that are present in fetal mice whose mothers had been given alcohol.
In addition to science and art, I enjoy traveling, gardening, and watching my son and daughter as well as my former students grow in their own personal lives and careers.