In celebration of the 20th annual Student Research Week (March 27-31) at Texas A&M University, the College of Science is taking five with five different people involved in various aspects and stages of innovative research at Texas A&M and beyond. Today's segment features Texas A&M biologist Duncan S. MacKenzie.

MacKenzie joined the Texas A&M Department of Biology in 1983 as an assistant professor after earning his Ph.D. in zoology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1980. He served five years as the department's graduate advisor (1993-1998) but has since spent more than two decades carving out his niche in undergraduate education and research. In addition to being Texas A&M Biology's longtime associate director for undergraduate research, he is director of the Biology Honors Program, which began last fall and already has more than 70 students enrolled. MacKenzie also serves as co-chair of the Graduate Marine Biology Interdisciplinary Degree Program.

His own research interests revolve around endocrinology -- specifically, thyroid function and regulation -- in red fish and other commercially important fish species, which he's been studying since 1995. Also an equally respected educator among both students and peers, he is a two-time recipient of the Texas A&M Association of Former Students College-Level Distinguished Achievement Award for Teaching (2002 and 1989).

We caught up with MacKenzie earlier this week to discuss work underway in his laboratory and the importance of conducting research at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as one of its implicit bonuses -- enhanced communications skills.

What is your lab's research interest?
"I'm interested in the evolution of endocrine systems. We're particularly interested in the thyroid gland because it's such an unusual endocrine system. The thyroid does a lot of things that other endocrine glands don't do. It uses a rare element, iodine, to manufacture its hormone -- it makes the hormone extracellularly and stores it extracellularly. From an evolutionary standpoint, there are a lot of very interesting questions as to why this gland is so unusual. From a clinical standpoint, those issues can cause a lot of problems as well."

How does one study the thyroid gland?
"Our interest has always been the function of this gland in non-mammalian species. I've worked over the years with amphibians and reptiles, but most of our work right now is focusing on fish -- trying to understand what aspects of this gland are conserved across different animal groups and how it functions to promote normal physiology in some of these more ancient groups."

Why is it important to understand how the thyroid gland works in fish?
"Much of the motivation that we have for studying the thyroid gland comes from an interest in the basic understanding of where the gland came from and how it functions. But there also are practical applications to this related to the role of the gland in regulating metabolism and growth, which seems to be very highly conserved in different species, especially in aquaculture.

"One of our more applied angles to this is trying to determine whether or not this endocrine gland that we're studying has an important role in regulating growth and reproduction in animals in captivity, in particular fish in aquaculture."

You are also the director of the brand new Biology Honors Program. Tell us more about it.
"We have a large number of students in biology who are premedical and are exceptional students. Those students will maintain very high GPAs; they will graduate and go to excellent medical schools.

"We started the honors program in the hopes of attracting and retaining some of the highest-performing students in the biological sciences on campus. We felt that in a number of cases, those students could benefit from smaller classes that were being taught with more depth. Biology honors comprises a series of courses through the freshman and sophomore years which are honors sections of our regular introductory courses.

"One of the most distinctive aspects of the Biology Honors Program is that there is a requirement for students to do undergraduate research. All of the biology honors students will have to complete at least two semesters of undergraduate research before they obtain their biology honors distinction at graduation. The opportunity there is for faculty to really get to know the students better, and for the students to have more of an opportunity to ask questions and to learn the material in-depth. I think it's worked very well so far."

What is the best advice you can give students who are interested in graduate school?
"It's extremely important that kids interested in going to graduate school get quality undergraduate research experiences. When I have students come into my lab who express an interest in going to graduate school, I also feel like it's very important for them to understand what the communication requirements are going to be to go on to a master's or Ph.D. One of the most challenging aspects of undergraduate research is the writing aspect. Many of our undergrads need more experience in writing in their discipline and specifically writing about research that they've done."

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Now in its 20th year, Student Research Week is a friendly competition that highlights both undergraduate and graduate research at Texas A&M, one of the country's top research universities. The weeklong celebration fosters an environment for students, faculty and administrators to learn about student research at Texas A&M and also gives students an opportunity to win numerous awards and cash prizes. To learn more about the week's schedule and specific events, see this recent feature article or go to http://srw.tamu.edu/.

For more information about research within the College of Science, go to http://www.science.tamu.edu/research/.


Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • Dr. Duncan S. MacKenzie

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