Carnegie Mellon University
December 05, 2023

Hinman Awarded International Kowalevsky Medal

By Heidi Opdyke

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Veronica Hinman's research into starfish, urchins and other echinoderms is unlocking secrets to evolutionary and developmental biology.

Hinman, head of the Department of Biological Sciences and the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences, was recently announced as the international Kowalevsky Medal winner. The award is given annually by the Saint Petersburg Society of Naturalists for extraordinary achievements in evolutionary developmental biology and comparative zoology. The award is named after Alexander O. Kowalevsky, an influential 19th century biologist who worked at the intersection of evolution and embryology.

"It's a tremendous honor," Hinman said. "The people who have received the medal before me have been among my heroes in the EvoDevo field, so it is an enormous honor to be listed among them."

A member of Carnegie Mellon's Department of Biological Sciences since 2006, Hinman researches the evolution of developmental mechanisms, focusing on gene regulatory networks (GRNs), the complex pathways that control the expression of the genes that are present at the beginning of most organisms' lives. How these genes are expressed results in the vast diversity of life that is present on Earth today.

Starfish and humans, along with other vertebrates, share a number of similarities in their early development, genome organization and gene content. Hinman oversees Echinobase, a web-based resource that provides access to genomic, expression and functional data from research related to starfish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins and other types of echinoderms. The National Institutes of Health NICHD P41 grant that funds Echinobase has recently been renewed for another five years. Hinman said Echinobase and other species model organism databases are crucial to scientific research.

"Echinobase takes many types of disparate genomics datasets and brings them together into a single, easily searchable format. Researchers can rapidly find information about a gene of interest, for example, and then immediately find other information such as expression, function, genomic locus and information about this gene in multiple other species," she said. "These data provide a rich context to their work, allowing them to quickly gather diverse information and place their findings in the bigger context of other research."

Work on echinoderms could provide a pathway for future research on neuronal regeneration in humans. For example, in recent work, Hinman's lab discovered a mechanism that underlies the regeneration of neurons in starfish, and showed for the first time that starfish can regenerate their nervous system.

"In development, the starfish uses orthologous genes to its vertebrate sister species. These findings may allow for the future understanding of how embryonic neurogenesis could be induced from other adult cell types in humans," Hinman said. "In humans, full recovery from traumatic brain injury, whether it be from an accident or an illness, is difficult and often impossible. If we could regenerate the brain cells that are no longer functioning, we could help to improve recovery from these devastating injuries."

Hinman earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1989, a bachelor's degree in zoology in 1994 and a doctoral degree in zoology in 2000 from the University of Queensland in Australia. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology in 2006, she joined the Biological Sciences faculty. She also is a member of Carnegie Mellon's Department of Computational Biology and the Center for Nucleic Acids Science and Technology.

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