Assistant Professor Elizabeth McNeill joined the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition earlier this month. Through her research, she uses fruit flies to study the function of microRNAs, a class of molecules that regulate gene expression. The magenta seen on the computer monitor in the photo shows the motor neuron of a fruit fly larvae, while the green shows the cytoskeletal protein found at the junction between two nerve cells. Photo by Whitney Sager.

New faculty member brings microRNA gene research experience to Iowa State

She once thought fruit flies were just annoying little bugs, but now Elizabeth McNeill spends her time studying them as part of her research.

McNeill joined the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition as an assistant professor earlier this month. Having earned her bachelor of science degree in biology from Iowa State in 2002, McNeill said she appreciated the dedication faculty members had toward students while she was an undergraduate and knew she wanted to return to campus as a professional.

“I’ve always wanted to come back and be a part of that,” McNeill said.

In addition to her BS degree, McNeill holds a doctoral degree in nutritional sciences and biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. For the past three years, she’s served as an instructor in Harvard Medical School’s cell biology department.

McNeill’s area of research focuses on exploring the function of microRNAs, a class of molecules that regulate gene expression. Through her research, she seeks to understand how genes function as individuals age in order to find ways to potentially prevent health issues that arise throughout the aging process. She does this through studying fruit flies.

She was introduced to this area of study during her graduate coursework and has furthered that research during her professional career. During her time at Harvard, she and her colleagues developed a “Drosophila microRNA sponge library,” a tool that allows scientists to quickly test predictions about individual microRNAs in living fruit flies.

“This tool allows researchers for the first time to disrupt microRNA expression at a specific developmental time and in a specific tissue to ask questions not only about the function of a few microRNAs, but about all microRNAs that share the same sequence between flies and humans,” McNeill said. “This tool allows us to begin to understand the important role microRNAs are playing as a class of molecules.”

In one of her studies that looked at the maintenance of flight muscles in fruit flies, she determined that 24 percent of the tested microRNAs were required to maintain normal muscle structure as the flies aged. While at Iowa State, she plans to further this study to determine how those same molecules will be required in maintaining the heart muscle as an individual ages.

She has also used the tool created at Harvard to look at how microRNAs are involved in the development and maintenance of the nervous system.

“My results suggest key roles for microRNAs in making and maintaining neuronal connections,” McNeill said. “Ongoing work in the lab is digging into the genetic targets of the microRNAs to better understand genetic factors that play a role in neuronal diseases.”

McNeill will spend this semester developing her research lab, in which she’ll continue to study the role of microRNAs in brain health and disease. Then during the fall semester of this year, she’ll begin teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, something she is looking forward to doing.

“Passing on the passion of pursuing scientific questions and the skills required to design an experiment to answer those questions has been one of my very favorite parts of my job as a researcher,” she said of teaching.

She’s also excited to begin working alongside fellow FSHN faculty members whose areas of study complement hers.

“I feel the FSHN department is a perfect fit for my diverse interests. I complement the ongoing work in the field of brain health, especially in the field of neurodegenerative disease, with a focus on the underlying genetic mechanism and cell biology,” McNeill said. “I also bring a new model organism (the fruit fly) to the department, which provides a very tractable genetic and aging model to pursue experimental questions in a new way.”

Ruth MacDonald, interim senior associate dean for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said McNeill will be a great addition to the FSHN Department’s neurosciences research team.

“Elizabeth is an excellent addition to our nutrition faculty,” MacDonald said. “During her post-doctoral work at Harvard, she has developed a unique research focus on microRNA in the neuronal system that has great importance to understanding how environmental factors, such as diet, can impact neurodegenerative diseases. Her fundamental research approach and molecular biology skills will add strength to the growing neurosciences research team within FSHN and across the campus.”

When she’s not busy teaching or in the lab, McNeill enjoys doing home improvement projects. She also likes to go kayaking and sailing with her husband, Andrew Bolstad (’02 electrical engineering), an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and their one-year-old daughter, Evelyn. McNeill’s family also includes two pets: Theodore, a nine-year-old rabbit, and Bessey (named after Bessey Hall), an approximately 40-year-old turtle she adopted when she was an undergraduate student at Iowa State.