By Kaylynne Enloe
Anna Wilson is a new Phi Beta Kappa member who recently graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in biology, concentrating on neuroscience and minoring in psychological and brain sciences, with summa cum laude honors. Wilson has been participating in research since her sophomore year, but she transitioned to translational research during her junior year because she strives to focus on clinical impact. She is currently working in the research lab at the Neurofibromatosis Center run by David Gutmann, M.D., Ph.D. Her career goal is to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. through an NIH-sponsored Medical Scientist Training Program to one day become a specialized physician who conducts patient-centered and directed research through creativity and collaboration.
Crafty in and outside of the lab, Wilson typically fills her free time with arts, music, and creative hobbies. She is currently participating in a post-baccalaureate program through the Developmental Biology and Regenerative Medicine departments at the Washington University School of Medicine. The duration of the program is two years, which will allow her to continue her gene research at the Neurofibromatosis Center.
Wilson explained that neurofibromatosis (NF) consists of genetic conditions that causes benign and malignant tumors to grow on nerves, brain tumors, vision loss, neurodevelopmental disorders, and learning differences. She said, “around a third of children with NF have autism spectrum disorder, so a pretty big question we have is why do these kids develop autism?”
Research at the NF center has led to the identification of a gene called CRLF3, which when found mutated in children with NF1 and contributes to increased autistic spectrum burden as measured by higher scores on the Social Responsive Scale. The CRLF3 gene was discovered before Wilson started her work at the NF center, but her current research focuses on this gene, how it works and why it contributes to autism or more severe autism in the framework of the NF1 disease.
Mapping out how she is conducting her investigation, Wilson explained it this way —
“First, we created a genetically engineered mouse with the same mutation that we found in human patients. I want to see if this mouse has behaviors we classify as ‘mouse autism’ and whether its brain cells develop differently.”
“Second, I’m also looking at human cerebral organoids, which are essentially ‘mini brains’ we can grow in the lab. These also have the same mutation as the patients, and they’re super cool because we can use them to model early human brain development. I’ll also be looking at them to see how their cells develop.”
Dr. Gutmann praised Wilson’s work ethic and her creative thinking skills for developing different solutions. “One of the things I really enjoy is training the next generation,” he said. It is “rare to see an undergrad troubleshoot their own project,” he observed, and went on to explain how Wilson helped the lab start a scholar program for undergraduate students. “Without her energy, the program wouldn’t be up and running.” Wilson helps mentor these undergraduate students in her lab as well so she can provide them with exposure and opportunities, which is why she thinks higher education is important.
Wilson is interested in creating a therapeutic equestrian program for people with autism, inspired by her love for horseback riding during her college experience. Dr. Gutmann said she is constantly thinking of ways to become more involved and that he admires her commitment and her passion. “She is very motivated to become a practicing physician and learn more about these diseases,” he said. She never becomes discouraged by a roadblock; she would rather see it as a new clue.
Wilson’s work in the sciences has completely changed her thought process in daily life, and her life experiences also have influenced her scientific methods. “Science emphasizes an analytical, hypothesis-driven mindset, which I definitely find myself applying to even unrelated, basic problems,” she explained. She credits her mentors for guiding her with productive feedback and supporting her to think for herself.
Dr. Gutmann described how she demonstrated her motivation by becoming almost a full-time member of the lab during Covid protocol, while taking virtual classes as well as continuously helping with events held at the NF Center. She recently took part in a local event for NF awareness where she had the opportunity to spend time with family and friends of children with NF. “Laboratory science can have a lot of setbacks, and it’s those moments with kids and families that help push me through,” she said. These experiences remind her who she is helping and why it is important to her, on top of pursuing her love for science.
Wilson said she is intrigued by this research because she has a personal connection to it. Her family has a history of neurodevelopmental disorders (specifically ADHD, closely tied to autism) sparking her initial interest in the science of brain development. Wilson is very passionate about her research, and she strives to use it as a creative outlet. “Sometimes when you know everything there is to know about a topic, it can prevent you from thinking about it in new ways,” Wilson said. “But as students, being less experienced can actually help you think of creative ways to solve a problem because you’re not as set in a routine.” Her innovative approach to her research in the lab will undoubtedly help contribute to even more discoveries concerning the CRLF3 gene.
For Wilson’s Phi Beta Kappa induction, she had to experience the ceremony over a Zoom livestream due to the pandemic, but she was able to send the link to her whole family so they could join in and watch her be recognized for her academic performance. Wilson felt honored to be joining so many other influential people. “What was really special was when I was told my grandmother, Mary Ann Swiger, was a member as well.” Wilson noted how her grandmother sent her a picture of her pin, which she has kept in her jewelry box to this day. “She’s always been an incredibly driven and ambitious woman who I really admire and look up to, so I was happy to share this with her.”
Kaylynne Enloe graduated from Arizona State University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in film and media studies, focusing on film genre and the television industry. She was inducted into ASU’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Beta of Arizona, in May 2021.