C. elegans is a model organism, one of a handful of species that scientists study closely to learn about general biological principles. There are a few others: several bacteria and yeasts, Arabidopsis plants, fruit flies, zebra fish, rats, and mice. Nematodes are useful as a model organism because they’re among the simplest creatures to possess a nervous system, they can be frozen and thawed without damaging their viability, and they reproduce rapidly — even more quickly than fruit flies. Nobel Prize-winner Sydney Brenner pioneered studies of C. elegans in the 1970s, making it a relatively recent entry into the roster of model species. As a result, says CALS associate dean Irwin Goldman PhD’91, “the C. elegans community is still relatively small and tight-knit.”
That closeness is highlighted at WormBase, an online database that keeps records of the researchers who are working on C. elegans, cross-referencing mentors to protégés. Sydney Brenner, for instance, is listed as WB (WormBase) Person77. He was the mentor for David Hirsh, WBPerson259, a professor at Columbia who mentored Judith Kimble, WBPerson320. A biochemistry professor at UW-Madison, Kimble supervised Elizabeth Goodwin, WBPerson213, when she was a postdoctoral fellow. And Goodwin was the mentor to WBPerson3474, Amy Hubert.
Hubert came to UW-Madison in 2001 from the north-central Kansas town of Concordia. Like many graduate students, she’d earned her previous degree elsewhere — a bachelor’s at the University of Kansas. She’d been attracted to the UW by its reputation as a leader in genetics, but she didn’t join Goodwin’s lab until spring 2002.
“I liked Betsy [Goodwin] as an adviser,” Hubert says. “She was very friendly, very hands-on, always checking in with us about how our work was going.”