Award-winning science presentation

Helene Mantineo ’21 receives recognition for research on regeneration in zebrafish 

Helene Mantineo, a Wheaton College (MA) junior, recently received a first-place award for her poster presentation in the biological sciences category at the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in Washington, D.C.

The February conference, which featured more than 1,500 participants, was hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation. It aims to help undergraduate and graduate students enhance their science communication skills and to better understand how to prepare for science careers in a global workforce.

Mantineo won in the subcategory of Cell and Molecular Biology/Biochemistry for her poster presentation “Identifying Non-Coding RNAs as Pro-Regenerative Factors in Zebrafish Tissue Regeneration,” which shares the genomics research she co-authored with Benjamin King, assistant professor of bioinformatics at the University of Maine, and Emily Robinson, one of the professor’s former students. 

A biochemistry major on a pre-med track, Mantineo did the work during a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in the University of Maine’s Accelerating New Environmental Workskills program in summer 2019. 

“The capacity to regenerate tissues after injury is not equal across animals. Humans can regenerate some tissues whereas other animals, such as the zebrafish, can regenerate nearly any tissue after injury,” she explained. “The long-term goal of our research is to discover the genetic factors that regulate regenerative capacity.” 

At the conference, she enjoyed the opportunity to have conversations about the research.

“I am interested in genetics and functional genomics because, if we can pinpoint the processes by which zebrafish tissue can regenerate, there is a possibility for us to stimulate this process in humans,” she said. “Regeneration is such an interesting field because, as we age, we cannot regenerate our tissues. By stimulating regeneration, there is a way in which we can prolong life.”

Mantineo said her research on regeneration in zebrafish hearts with Wheaton Professor of Biology Robert Morris as well as coursework in genetics with Associate Professor of Biology Shawn McCafferty contributed to such a successful outcome at the conference. 

“I was completely shocked when I won, because it was totally unexpected. There were so many people who participated and to come in first was very rewarding,” she said. “I thought it was amazing that I came from a small school and participated in a brand new REU program, yet I was still able to make myself stand out in the crowd.”

Professor Morris is not surprised.

“This accomplishment is pretty special,” he said. “Helene was presenting her research at a national conference with emerging researchers drawn from all over the country. Emerging researchers are young researchers, most of whom are doing scholarly work at a level unusually advanced for their early career stage.

“This prize is special because the meeting is prestigious and the attendees are top young scholars. Even within this elite group, Helene won the top prize,” he added.

Morris has been Mantineo’s research advisor for two years. Montineo is a member of the Morris Lab, a team of students who work with the professor to study tissue regeneration, seeking to understand how to potentially accelerate healing and slow aging.

“She is a brilliant, creative and joyful scientist who advances every program she joins through the power of her intellect and ebullient personality,” he said. “In only her second semester at Wheaton, Helene joined my research lab and dove straight into the research projects with the other six students in the lab and quickly made herself an invaluable collaborator. At the end of that semester, after only weeks in the lab, Helene helped present a poster at Wheaton’s Academic Festival on cell-signaling pathways in tissue regeneration. It was clear from these early days at Wheaton that Helene was a rising star.”

On campus, Mantineo has been very involved outside of the classroom. She is treasurer and future president of Best Buddies (a nonprofit dedicated to building friendships), a tutor in the Filene Center for Academic Advising and Career Services in biology, chemistry and calculus, and a member of the Ultimate Frisbee team. 

“I really enjoy being a part of so many different things on campus, as I interact with a variety of people with many different interests,” she said.

Immediately after Wheaton, she plans to work for a year or so to figure out what she would like to do. In the future, she said she hopes to pursue a doctorate in genetics or functional genomics or complete a dual M.D./Ph.D. program.