WHAT THEY LEARNED: Brenna Lilley ’15

The biology major, who is interested in genetics, researched disease presentation in individuals with MYH9-related disorders using a fruit fly model.

Brenna Lilley ’15 fell in love with the study of genetics during a freshman-year high school biology course. It is an interest that followed her to Haverford and led to her majoring in biology and working a lab in the Department of Human Genetics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) the summer before her senior year. So when it came time to embark upon a yearlong research project for her thesis, Lilley knew she wanted to spend that time studying a rare genetic disorder.

“I developed a project to further elucidate the mechanism of disease presentation in individuals with MYH9-related disorders, a group of disorders that results in bleeding problems and early-onset deafness and cataracts, by using a fruit fly model,” says Lilley, whose research culminated in the thesis “Investigating human MYH9-related disorders at a molecular and cellular level in a Drosophila melanogaster model.”

The psychology minor and biochemistry concentrator is looking towards medical school and a career in genetics, but first, for the next two years, she will be back at CHOP working in Dr. Beverly Emanuel’s lab, which focuses on developmental disorders arising from mutations on chromosome 22.

“My thesis research has only strengthened my interest in pursuing a career in genetics and has helped me to become a more experienced and thoughtful researcher,” says Lilley. “I will take the laboratory techniques, problem-solving skills, and analytical skill I have learned with me and implement them in the work I will do in the future.


What are the implications for your thesis research?
In my research, I investigated how four different MYH9-related disorders are presented in fruit fly embryos. I was able to characterize and quantify the severity and frequency of developmental defects in the embryos and found that two of the MYH9-related disorders resulted in a higher degree of developmental defects as compared to the other two. My research has shown that the effects of these disorders are detectable in developing fruit fly embryos, which was not confirmed up until now. It would be worthwhile for other researchers who study MYH9-related disorders to replicate these results and to use developing fruit fly embryos to further investigate the mechanism of MYH9-related disorder presentation on a molecular and cellular level, since my research and the research of others have only begun to brush the surface.

What did you learn from working on your thesis?
Learning laboratory techniques and troubleshooting experimental methods takes up a significant amount of time when conducting research, something I did not initially expect. I spent the whole first semester planning my experimental approach, practicing the laboratory techniques I would need to conduct my research, and learning how to use different microscopes for analysis. While it was a little discomforting that I would not be able to start my “real” research until second semester, it was absolutely necessary in order to conduct my research in a responsible manner and to ultimately get significant results. The fantastic part about my project is that it was my own. I was invested in it and excited to come into lab, believing in the possibility that my results could add to the knowledge of MYH9-related disorders and potentially help individuals living with this disease. I put in more time and effort into my project than I expected, and did so gladly.


 Photo: (cc) Nina/Wikicommons

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.