Dr. Cate Starr has been a contributor to multiple facets of the diverse education programming efforts of the American Museum of Natural History, from one-time workshops for teachers to the extended involvement of high school research interns. She brings to the museum a background in genetics research and an interest and enthusiasm to apply that knowledge to understanding and teaching evolutionary biology.
Cate was born in Canada, but moved to New Zealand while in high school. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science with Honours from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. As an undergraduate, she made her start in evolutionary research – in flies. She isolated several repetitive elements from the genomes of a number of fly species. As you might guess from the name, these are short DNA segments that are repeated over and over and over again in the genomes of all living organisms. By studying the number and variation of elements, insights can be gained regarding the interrelatedness of species. The work was slow going, as molecular biology technology was still in its infancy, but it inspired Cate to take the next step in her research career.
She decided to return to her native continent for graduate school. Not being familiar with many North American colleges, she sought the guidance of her thesis advisor, who had been a postdoctoral fellow at The Rockefeller University, a medical research institution in New York City. Cate leapt at the chance to move from a country of only four million to a city of eight million. The map of Manhattan marked with all of this city’s museums and cultural institutions may have been as much of a draw as Rockefeller’s 19 Nobel Prize winners!
Cate began by applying her molecular manipulation skills in a lab studying the underlying genetics of heart disease. Switching gears, she decided to link her background in genetics with an interest in the brain. She joined a group of researchers investigating neuronal development in mouse noses. One day, she saw a fellow Canadian walking through the building lobby with a bucket of nets. She cornered her to find out what kind of project required fish nets. Not surprisingly, Cate’s friend had been catching fish – zebrafish to be precise. Zebrafish are a more recent addition to the pantheon of “model organisms” that scientists have agreed upon as representatives of the natural world. Zebrafish were chosen because they are small and easy to keep and breed in large numbers. Additionally, their embryos are transparent, which makes the rapid development of their organ systems easy to observe and study.
Moving from the nose to the ear, Cate began a collaborative project with several researchers to understand the genetic causes deafness, using zebrafish as a model system. (Yes, fish really do have ears!) In humans, there are at least 51 genes associated with inherited deafness, and an additional 58 unidentified genetic locations. Humans, unfortunately, are not the ideal system to study genetics – nobody has enough children! By running a parallel project in a more easily manipulated organism, new genes can be identified that will provide new insight into human hearing. In a surprising twist, Cate identified a mutation that causes eye as well as ear problems in fish and is homologous to a human mutation that causes a degenerative eye disease called choroideremia. This fish has been passed on to researchers studying the eye, who have recently published surprising insights into the pathology of this disease, which we hope will lead to a greater understanding of the progression of choroideremia in humans.
During graduate school, Cate began volunteering at the Museum, teaching genetics classes to high school kids. Her interest in education deepened, and when she completed her degree, she decided to transition to a career in education. She enjoys working with teachers through Seminars on Science, where scientists’ stories can be used to enrich their learning and, through them, the experience of their students.