Neuroscientist Judith Eisen named to National Academy of Sciences

May 2, 2024
A woman looks into the viewfinder of a microscope in a lab.
Judith Eisen overcame an initial disinterest in science to become a leading researcher in zebrafish neuron development.

University of Oregon neuroscientist Judith Eisen has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of her work on neuron development and how the enteric nervous system in the gut regulates and interacts with microbes in the intestine. 

Eisen is a longtime professor and researcher at the UO, where she is head of the Department of Biology and a member of the Institute of Neuroscience. Membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences is one of the highest honors that a scientist can receive.  

Eisen was among the pioneers of using zebrafish as a model organism for better understanding human physiology. Since her early days working with University of Oregon legend George Streisinger, she’s helped advance the worldwide adoption of the zebrafish model. 

“This well-deserved honor is a testament to Judith’s immeasurable contributions to biology and neuroscience research,” said Chris Poulsen, Tykeson Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “As a founder and worldwide leader in establishing zebrafish as a model organism for biomedical research, her impact on the field cannot be overstated. Her work continues to inspire faculty and students, and we're thrilled to see the National Academy of Sciences recognize her accomplishments.” 

The honor is one that might never have materialized, had Eisen not overcome an initial disinterest in science. While many scientists can trace their research interests to some childhood experience, Eisen says that wasn’t the case for her.  

“We collected tadpoles and raised them until they were frogs, but otherwise I wasn’t really interested in science,” she said. “I didn’t really like the way my high school science courses were taught, and I think I conflated not liking the way it was taught with not liking science.” 

But something clicked in a botany class during her undergraduate years at the University of Illinois, where Eisen had been studying anthropology. She hungered to test hypotheses, and so far, no one has invented a time machine to allow anthropologists to launch experiments 10,000 years in the past. 

“For me, the ability to look at something, and say, ‘Well, that’s weird, how does that work?’ and pick it apart to understand how it works really suits the way that I think about the world,” she said. “I came to this much later than many people and completely by accident.” 

Following her doctorate at Brandeis University, Eisen came to the University of Oregon as a postdoctoral researcher and then became a tenure-track professor. Initially, she studied neuron development in frogs, but she later moved to working with zebrafish as a model organism at the urging of colleague Streisinger.  

The zebrafish’s genetic similarities to humans, its transparent embryos, and its rapid reproduction all made it a promising candidate, and the fish is now used in more than 1,500 labs worldwide. Such is the success of zebrafish research at the UO that both the Zebrafish Information Network and the Zebrafish International Resource Center are located here. 

Neural machinery and gut feelings

Eisen focuses on the early development of the nervous system and how the cells that become neurons “know” that’s the sort of cell they’ll be when they grow up. Once cellular differentiation occurs, those cells must elaborate molecular machinery such as neurotransmitters and synapses.  

While zebrafish growth is not a direct analog to humans, it is remarkably similar, and the genes that regulate the neural development of vertebrate animals are shared across different species. 

Additionally, Eisen studies host-associated microbes and how they affect the development of neural cells. Animals, including humans, are covered with microbes inside and out. We know that those microbes interact with our cells, but how do they specifically influence developmental, metabolic and physiological processes? 

“Many people are surprised to learn that you have a nervous system inside your gut,” Eisen said. “We actually acknowledge it in common parlance: You have a ‘gut feeling.’ Those nerve cells are what give you the gut feeling. They also control the motility of the gut and homeostatic mechanisms.” 

Greater understanding about those intestinal neurons could one day lead to better treatments for conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, in which the gut neurons are inflamed, or Hirschsprung's disease, where the gut nerve cells are missing. 

Eisen was recently honored with the George Streisinger Award by the International Zebrafish Society. That award recognizes a senior investigator who has done “sustained and foundational work that has opened new possibilities within the zebrafish field that benefit all research today.” 

Team science

Some years into teaching, Eisen had a realization: The same methods she disliked as an adolescent — lecturing, rote memorization — had somehow become her own. Eisen said one of the great lessons of her life is the importance of keeping an open mind, which in large part is influenced by the way people are taught. 

“Little kids are so curious and ask so many questions,” she said. “But by middle school they conflate not liking the way something is being taught with not liking the subject. We need to keep them curious. Inspiration can come from all sorts of places. It can come from people asking you questions you never thought about and realizing you don’t know the answer, but you could figure it out. It comes from listening to other people’s criticisms of what you do.” 

Along with Michael Raymer, Knight Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the Department of Physics, Eisen co‐founded and co‐directed the UO Science Literacy Program, which works to develop excellent science educators. 

“People are more invested in learning things when they are active participants,” she said. “Making mistakes is OK; it’s a valuable way to learn things. Helpful criticism makes your thinking and your end product better and is such an important step in the process.” 

Eisen’s infectious commitment to learning and constant exploration has not only helped build the zebrafish research program at the UO but has also influenced many students through the years. 

“Through her study of early neuron development and interest in improving science literacy and teaching, Judith has greatly impacted not only the scientific community, but hundreds of students along the way,” said Anshuman “AR” Razdan, vice president for research and innovation. 

Eisen says while her own hard work and passion for the research are critical, it is the many people she has worked with along the way that have made the success and enjoyment of her career possible. 

“I’m the one who got elected to the academy, but nobody does research on their own,” Eisen said. “There are so many people — it would be hard for me to list them all — who have been important influences on how I think about doing research and what I actually do. This is always a collective, collaborative effort.” 

As to what comes next, Eisen recalled listening to a podcast recently in which Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai was asked what she did right after she found out she’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  

“She said she went right back to physics class,” Eisen said with a laugh. “It’s an extreme honor to have been elected by colleagues into the National Academy of Sciences and to have gotten the Streisinger Award, but it doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for learning. There are still so many questions I would love to know the answers to.” 

By Kelley Christensen, Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation 

Learn more about zebrafish research at the UO