By Katie Cowart
University of Georgia faculty member Rachel Roberts-Galbraith has received the 2019 McKnight Scholar Award, which recognizes scientists in the early stages of their careers working in the field of neuroscience. An assistant professor of cellular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, Roberts-Galbraith is the first UGA faculty member to receive the award.
“Dr. Roberts-Galbraith’s studies are a unique combination of outstanding basic science with clear clinical potential. That synergy in her scholarship is what the McKnight Foundation found attractive in her work,” said Kojo A. Mensa-Wilmot, department head of cellular biology. “We are very proud that she put UGA on the map of the McKnight Foundation.”
Roberts-Galbraith’s lab studies the regeneration of the central nervous system in flatworms called planarians. Planarians can regenerate their entire brain after amputation. By studying the regeneration of neurons on a simple and basic level in nature, Roberts-Galbraith hopes to learn how to apply the same concepts to human regeneration. This research could lead to major medical advancements in treating victims of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
“We look at an organism where regeneration works to figure out the nuts and bolts. We always hope that down the road our work might improve outcomes for humans,” said Roberts-Galbraith
Roberts-Galbraith grew up surrounded by science. Her father was a biology teacher and often recruited her to help collect field specimens for his classes. She saw with her own eyes the way a flatworm can regrow its parts, no microscope needed. When she looked at where she wanted her career to go, this phenomenon still held allure to her.
“The McKnight Scholars Award supports two main arms of our research,” said Roberts-Galbraith. “One project examines how the neurons themselves might encourage regeneration through signaling, and the other project has to do with cells of the nervous system that are not neurons. We focus on how these cells, called glia, regenerate and how they cooperate with neurons to encourage regeneration.”
Roberts-Galbraith hypothesizes that neurons influence planarian stem cells, which are critical for regeneration. Her research aims to find where the genes that control regeneration are turned on, and if the gene is turned off, does the animal fail at regeneration.
“These animals can regenerate partly because they keep stem cells around all the time at the ready, and we are trying to understand how these stem cells are controlled to mount the response after injury.”
Over the next three years, Roberts-Galbraith will receive $75,000 per year to continue her research in these areas. The McKnight endowment seeks to support researchers working on problems that would have significant impact if solved.
Roberts-Galbraith was also the recipient of a Sloan Foundation Fellowship in February 2019.
“I am really honored to receive these awards. Support by the Sloan and McKnight Foundations confirms that we are asking some important questions about regeneration,” said Roberts-Galbraith. “Why doesn’t the human body regenerate very well? We are using a model that can make some very unique contributions, and I believe that’s one of the things these foundations value in our work.”