‘I am striving to make science exciting, accessible and inclusive for all’

University of Kansas faculty are striving to advance knowledge, interpret our world, solve problems, spark innovation, create beauty and catalyze imagination through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Through the “I Am Striving” series, we’ll learn more about what inspires KU researchers, as well as the goals and impact of their work. 

Q&A with Paulyn Cartwright, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology  

Explain your research as you would explain it to someone outside your field, such as your grandparents. 

I study jellyfish and their relatives, which belong to a larger group called cnidarians that also includes corals and sea anemones. Cnidarians are so interesting because they are one of the first animal groups to have evolved on Earth. Because of this, they’re really simple in terms of their basic building blocks, and yet, they’ve been able to achieve this incredible diversity in terms of forms and complex life cycles. They also have a number of really unique features. If you’ve ever encountered a jellyfish in the ocean, you’ll know that they can deliver a very painful sting. Also, in fact, some jellyfish have eyes. We think some of them use these to form images to capture their prey, and yet they don’t have a brain. I’m really interested in how you go from these basic building blocks to these complex traits and features. To do this, I ask various questions like, “What are the molecular mechanisms underlying these traits? How do these evolve? And what do they share with other animals, including humans?”  

What does your research look like? What kind of methods do you use? 

We have a lot of cnidarian species in the lab, including several small jellyfish. We primarily study their genomes. Although genome sequencing is great, it’s actually not enough to answer some of the questions that we’re interested in. When you sequence a genome, it’s just determining the order of the base pairs. Looking at relative orders of A, G, T and C nucleotides is interesting, but what we really want to know is how you go from that to a particular trait of interest, such as the jellyfish sting. This is an area called functional genomics. I’m excited because one of the techniques we’re using is genome editing, or CRISPR. We’re able to take a gene of interest, mutate it in our embryo, and then grow it up to see how that mutated gene affects form or function. This is an exciting time in biology because of genome-editing techniques such as CRISPR, we can get at these various features at a very detailed functional level. For example, my student, Anna Klompen, is interested in jellyfish venoms. She has identified one particular toxin that she thinks is very important to capturing prey in her study organism. She used CRISPR to mutate it as an embryo. Now, she’s growing them up, and she’s going determine whether or not they can capture their food. 

What inspires your research? Why are you passionate about this work?

In general, I am so intrigued by the diversity and complexity of life on Earth. To go out in nature and to think that all of this came about from a simple common ancestor, for me, it invokes so many questions that I want to answer. In the age of genomics and genome editing, it’s an exciting time that we can start to answer these at a very detailed level. Unraveling the molecular mechanisms involved in the complexity of life’s forms is really what I’m most passionate about in my research. 

How does your research directly impact your field, society and the world? 

Because my study organism — cnidarian jellyfish and their relatives — are so simple, they’re really good experimental models to study research questions that are important for human health such as neurobiology, stem cell research, regeneration and aging. It is my hope that my research will inspire other researchers to adopt these as their experimental organisms to study some of these basic yet really complex processes of cellular and developmental biology.  

What is a recent study/example of work you’d like to share? 

One of my findings that I’m most excited about is when we sequenced the genomes of a bunch of microscopic parasites called myxozoans, we were able to confirm that they are actually cnidarians, and in fact, their closest relatives are jellyfish. Now, myxozoans are just a few cells in size, and they have these complex life cycles that live inside the cells of other animals, such as fish and invertebrates. When we looked at their genomes, we found that because they’re microscopic, they lost a lot of the genes that would make a proper animal. But what was really surprising to us is that they retain the genes that are responsible for making those stinging cells that are characteristic of all cnidarians, including jellyfish. But because they’re microscopic, myxozoans don’t use them for stinging; they use them to attach to their host and insert themselves inside of their cells. I really love this example because it shows that evolution doesn’t just proceed by making things more complex — it can actually go the opposite in the case of this microscopic intracellular parasite. They lost all their jellyfish-like features, but they were just able to retain those they needed for this new type of lifestyle. 

What do you hope are some of the outcomes of your research and work? 

My primary goal as an educator and as a researcher is to broaden participation in science. I feel that the best way we can do this is to lower some of the barriers that have traditionally prevented people from entering science careers. I try to do this, both for the students in my lab and in the classroom. I run a program on campus that is targeted toward students from populations that are traditionally marginalized in STEM. For the students and for early career researchers, I try to provide mentorship to help them navigate academia’s complex system. In the classroom, I work to come up with creative ways for teaching and understanding recognizing that there is a diversity of ways people learn and retain concepts in science. In general, I just try to create an inclusive and safe space.