Worming Through the Secrets of Meiosis


by Andrew Montequin

The Society for Developmental Biology recognized Aimee Jaramillo-Lambert with the 2023 Elizabeth D. Hay New Investigator Award. Jaramillo-Lambert is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware, and the award is in recognition of her outstanding research in developmental biology during the early stages of her independent career.

Jaramillo-Lambert’s career as a “New Investigator” precedes her current professorship, beginning when she was an undergraduate enrolled in an introductory genetics class. She fell in love with the topic, and when the Teaching Assistant put out an ad for undergraduate research positions, a new door opened for her. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, you can do research?’” said Jaramillo-Lambert. Not long after starting in the lab, she knew that she wanted to pursue a career in research.

The next step for Jaramillo-Lambert was graduate school at the University of California, Davis where she joined the lab of JoAnne Engebrecht. At the time, Engebrecht had just returned from a sabbatical where she learned to work with C. elegans. When Engebrecht offered Jaramillo-Lambert the opportunity to work on the lab’s first C. elegans project, she jumped at the chance, even though it differed from her previous work in a yeast lab. “It was a really great experience because we kind of learned about the system together,” said Jaramillo-Lambert.

Jaramillo-Lambert’s thesis work uncovered several sex-specific differences in the C. elegans germ line, a research theme that she has carried into her current role. To this day, Jaramillo-Lambert still considers Engebrecht to be one of her primary mentors. “I still contact her just if I need advice. She’s read grants, she’s read manuscripts,” said Jaramillo-Lambert.

After a brief stint studying the DNA damage response in human tissue culture, Jaramillo-Lambert realized that she still wanted to study these processes in the context of a developing organism. She relocated to the National Institutes of Health to work with Andy Golden and found herself once again studying meiosis in C. elegans.

“I just find watching the chromosomes, looking at their structure and watching them move, to be really fascinating,” Jaramillo-Lambert said. “And the C. elegans germ line is just so beautiful for imaging all these events. Even now, I still feel like I nerd out when I’m looking under the microscopes.”

This passion for meiosis is also based on her understanding of its fundamental role in so many life processes. She noted that when she teaches genetics to undergrads now, she switches up the order of the textbook to begin with meiosis. “We’ve got to do this first! This is the basis of Mendelian genetics!” said Jaramillo-Lambert.

Thanks to the discoveries that Jaramillo-Lambert made as a postdoc, she positioned herself well to run her own research program as a principal investigator. First, she identified a temperature-sensitive allele of the gene top-2, which codes for a Type II topoisomerase. Because topoisomerases play an important role in maintaining chromosome structure and ensuring proper chromosome segregation during mitosis, mutations to this gene are often lethal and studying its role in meiosis was previously impossible. Her discovery of a temperature-sensitive allele opened up a brand new avenue of inquiry and allowed her to make novel insights into the role of TOP-2 in meiosis.

Jaramillo-Lambert got to work with this novel allele and soon uncovered a unique requirement for TOP-2 in spermatogenesis but not oogenesis, an exciting sex-specific difference in meiosis that laid the groundwork for much of her current research. In more recently published work, her lab used the temperature-sensitive allele to perform a genetic screen to start the process of understanding how TOP-2 might function within meiosis, identifying genes that may interact with top-2. Today, her lab continues this work studying sex differences in chromosome structure and segregation during meiosis, as well as sperm contributions to embryonic development.

Reflecting on her own experience as a student, when she sat in genetics class unaware of the research opportunities available to her, Jaramillo-Lambert strives to make sure that her mentees are aware of all possible career paths that are open to them.

“I am there to encourage my students, whatever their next career goal,” Jaramillo-Lambert said. Even in her short time as a professor, she has had students pursue careers in industry, genetic counseling and medicine, in addition to those who have proceeded in academia.

“The value [of a PhD] is learning how to think critically… and knowing how to troubleshoot,” skills which she believes are valuable regardless of the field.

In addition to supporting students with their next career steps, Jaramillo-Lambert is committed to making academia an open and welcoming place for those who are in it. She is a member of the Genetics Society of America Equity and Inclusion Committee, and a faculty advisor for the University of Delaware chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native American Scientists (SACNAS).

“Even in my class, I try to highlight scientists from different backgrounds in my assignments, or just as a shout-out in class,” she said.

For Jaramillo-Lambert, winning the Hay New Investigator Award is notable because it gives her the chance to attend the SDB Annual Meeting for the first time. “I attend the Mid-Atlantic SDB meeting every year, but I’ve never attended the Annual Meeting.”

Jaramillo-Lambert will present her Elizabeth D. Hay New Investigator Award lecture at the SDB 82nd Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Last Updated 06/13/2023