MCB concentrator and newly minted graduate Henry Cousins (‘17) received both the Thomas Hoopes Award and the Board of Tutors in Biochemical Sciences’’ Henderson Award for his thesis “A Wnt-Dependent Model of Synaptic Organization in the Outer Retina.” Cousins was also inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society as part of the “Senior 96” in May and received the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship in support of pursuing a masters in bioscience enterprise at University of Cambridge.
“I think what makes me more proud than anything is that [the awards] represent the determination of professors and scientists that I really admire,” says Cousins. “It’s really gratifying to know that some of these professors think this research is worthwhile.”
“Across his MCB courses, faculty attest that Henry was a consummate force of intellectual energy and engagement, constantly asking and answering sophisticated and nuanced questions,” says MCB concentration adviser and professor Marty Samuels.
Although Cousins is fascinated by the eye and the intricacies of developmental patterning in the brain, his long-term goal is to develop drugs that will help patients in the clinic. The Bioscience Enterprise Program at Cambridge combines elements of an MBA with science policy studies and consulting projects and will be just the first phase of Cousins’ graduate education; he plans on pursuing an MD/PhD after completing the masters at Cambridge. “It can sometimes be a trap if you study biomedical topics your whole life, and you never understand the political or economic context in which they are relevant,” says Cousins.
Cousins’ parents are engineers, but his grandparents are doctors, so he sees a career in drug development as a logical progression of his family legacy. During his time at Belmont Hill High School in Belmont, MA, Cousins worked at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, an experience that solidified his interest in the eye. At Harvard, Cousins joined professor Joshua Sanes’ lab and began assisting in research on the development of synaptic connections in rod and cone cells in the retina.
For his thesis project, Cousins worked closely with Sanes Lab post-doc Sumeet Sarin. They began by identifying genes that are highly expressed in rods and cones and then did a series of CRISPR/Cas9 knock-out experiments to see which genes affected synapse formation.
“At the end of this, we’ve come up with a list of some genes that cause disorder in the synapses of the retina when they’re knocked out,” says Cousins. “We’re trying to figure out, ‘How does that happen?’”
“I had to develop an entirely new culture system, starting from scratch,” Cousins continues. “These [rods and cones] are very tiny cells. They’re very fragile. So it took a lot of optimization and a lot of late nights in the lab to make sure that all of the protocols were right for this growth system…it was worth it in the end, because the system works well and it allows us to get at these questions that would not be addressed by any other means.”
“It would have been straightforward for Henry to continue this work as ‘thesis research’ during his senior year. However, he decided to strike out on his own, and came up with a new project that builds on what he has done, but allows him to tackle the problem in a novel and creative way,” says Professor Josh Sanes. “This is a challenging and risky project to say the least, but Henry thought through the difficulties, proposed specific strategies, and – most important – was willing to take on the challenge despite being fully aware of the risk.”
In the end, Cousins was able to identify the signalling molecule wnt5 as an essential cue for developing photoreceptors and synapses in rod cells.
“That he was able to accomplish so much is a testament to his work ethic and dedication,” says Sarin. “Henry also continued to be a helpful lab citizen, taking time to mentor other undergraduates in his techniques.”
Although honored to receive the Henderson and Hoopes thesis awards, Cousins is glad that his thesis work will enable future projects in the lab. “I think the best projects are the ones that maybe complement an ongoing project in the lab or maybe complement a post doc’s projects but do so in an original way,” Cousins says. “An asset of doing research as an undergrad is working with these older, more experienced mentors.”
Though Cousins is leaving the MCB department, the faculty have no doubt that he’ll continue to contribute to discussions in biology. “He loves to discuss science and research, both the details and the big picture, including pondering how and why different areas of research rise and fall with time,” says professor Rachelle Gaudet. “We will miss discussing his research with him.