Skip to main content

Gabriel Graham selected for the 2024 Tracy Undergraduate Research Fellowship

BY Ananya Sen
Gabriel Graham studies sex change in anemonefish.

Gabriel Graham studies sex change in anemonefish. / Max Goldstein

The Mark Tracy Undergraduate Translational Research Fellowship provides undergraduate students from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign the opportunity to participate in innovative research. The fellowship was established by Mark Tracy, the founder and president of Tracy BioConsulting, LLC.  Tracy, a University of Illinois alumnus, was inspired by the Illinois International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team, sponsored in part by the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology.

This year’s recipient is Gabriel Graham, a senior majoring in psychology and behavioral neuroscience with a minor in molecular and cellular biology. He will be working with Justin Rhodes (GNDP), a professor of psychology, to study sex change in anemonefish.

“Most animals have a chromosome or a gene that determines sex. In anemonefish, however, the sex is determined by their position in a social hierarchy,” Graham said. “They all start out as males and when they’re the alpha of the hierarchy, they become females.”

In anemonefish, Amphiprion ocellaris, the most dominant fish will become the sole ‘alpha’ female of the group, with the next most dominant fish being the only reproductively active ‘beta’ male. All the other fish are reproductively inactive ‘gamma’ males. If the dominant female is killed or removed, the beta male changes sex and becomes the new alpha female and all the subsequent fish move up one position in the hierarchy.

“I had initially applied to the lab because I had owned fish and had experience in keeping them. It seemed like a great fit. Once I joined and learned more about the work, I became more interested in it,” Graham said. “I also love how supportive the lab is and that I have a lot of independence to pursue my research.”

Recently the lab used single-nucleus RNA-sequencing to identify which brain cells differ between the sexes and they discovered that multiple cell types in the hypothalamus and telencephalon differ. Both these regions are known to play important roles in regulating behavior across different animals.

“It’s a huge data set and we collected data for males, females, and fish that are in the middle of a sex change,” Graham said. “We’re trying to understand what happens during the sex change process—is it a linear process or is there a weird intermediary stage that is different from both a male and a female? Our data suggests the latter.” Graham will be developing and applying statistical models to determine the similarities between the brains of the sex-changing fish to the male and female brains.

“The significance of being able to pursue my own project over the summer is hard to understate. I will learn new cutting-edge techniques, have the opportunity to publish my work, and create new connections with other researchers,” Graham said. “Since my post-graduation goal is to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience, all of these factors will be instrumental to my professional development.”

Related Articles

News Archive