Medical School faculty nurture science fair winner

High school student discovers ‘passion for science’ in diIorio and Cantor labs

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

August 05, 2013
Emory Payne, Sharon Cantor (center), and post-doctoral fellow Amy Branagan, PhD, review data in the lab.

Emory Payne is among the many high school and college students who have benefitted from UMass Medical School’s tradition of mentoring future scientists by hosting them in its research laboratories. Payne, along with Bancroft School classmate and research partner Zohaib Moonis, earned state, national and international science fair honors for an independent research project undertaken in the laboratory of Philip diIorio, PhD, assistant professor of molecular medicine.

“I discovered I have a passion for science,” said Payne, who readily admits he wasn’t focused on science when he began his school’s required class in research and scientific inquiry. But the opportunity to get assistance from Dr. diIorio on his independent research project proved life-changing.

“Phil was so accommodating,” Payne recalled. “We even learned how to breed the zebrafish so we could continue to work with them at school.”

DiIorio, who studies beta cells in zebrafish, welcomed Payne and Moonis into his lab to conduct the project Effect of Ethanol on Beta Cell Development in Zebrafish: Linking Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to Type 1 Diabetes. After exposing zebrafish embryos to increasing concentrations of ethanol, a pure form of alcohol, they observed the health and function of pancreatic beta cells, which are needed to produce insulin. As the alcohol concentrations increased, more beta cells became degraded. Poor beta cell functioning in the pancreas is directly linked to diabetes, leading the team to conclude there might be a link between alcohol use during pregnancy and type 1 diabetes.

The project, earned them a “Team 1st Place” honor at the 64th Annual Massachusetts State Science & Engineering Fair held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in May. Placing at this level qualified them to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix two weeks later.

High school science fair winners Emory Payne (right) and research partner Zohaib Moonis are pictured with the award-winning project they completed in the UMMS laboratory of Philip diIorio.

There the project earned Payne and Moonis second place in the Addiction Science Awards from the National Institute on Drug Abuse for being an exemplary project on the topic. The accompanying cash prize will cover their travel costs when they present their research at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, later this month.


Payne’s experience in diIorio’s lab prompted him to pursue additional research opportunities at UMMS. This summer, he has been working in the laboratory of Sharon Cantor, PhD, associate professor of cancer biology, which is studying a gene mutation in hereditary breast cancer.

Payne also hopes to conduct additional diabetes research in a UMMS lab during the upcoming school year when he will also be applying to colleges as a science major. “Getting so much exposure in the labs and getting to do independent research has been a great experience,” he concluded. “Being at UMass has led to awesome opportunities.”

Related link on UMassMedNow:
Hormone that makes diabetes-fighting cells in mice holds promise for humans: Beta cell expert Philip diIorio eager to apply findings to future studies