Beth Brainerd – Profile

Beth Brainerd – Profile

By Wendy Lawton, Science Writer for Brown University

As a child, Elizabeth Brainerd spent summers hip-deep in Nantucket Sound, trolling for fish with a 12-foot seine or combing the shores of East Falmouth for snails or hermit crabs. As an adult, the natural world continues to beguile her.

A functional morphologist, Brainerd has studied stingray jaws, salamander lungs, frog eyes and the adhesive footpads of insects. She helped explain how seahorses make clicking sounds – the process involves a sliding bone in their heads – and how the tiny, blind, burrowing threadsnake rakes insects into its mouth using a triple-jointed jaw. The discovery, published in Nature in 1999, details the only vertebrate feeding mechanism in which prey is transported exclusively by lower jaw movements.

“Beth’s research has a wonderful, playful quality to it,” said Mark Bertness, chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where Brainerd will teach as a professor of medical science. “Beth is also brilliant. As a functional morphologist, she is really tops in the field.”

After graduating from Harvard with highest honors in biology, Brainerd stayed on to get her Ph.D. in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Under the tutelage of Karel Liem, a gifted teacher, popular lecturer and the university’s curator of ichthyology, Brainerd was able to fuel her fascination with fish.

Why fish? Brainerd launches into an explanation of the lateral line, a sensory system fish use to gauge water pressure changes. Tiny bundles of cells called neuromasts run along the sides of their bodies and onto their heads, helping in everything from hunting to schooling.
“Fish are so supremely adapted to their aquatic environment,” she said. “They have this major sensory system we have to work very hard to imagine. Humans have nothing like it.”

Once, out in the eelgrass on Cape Cod, Brainerd caught a pufferfish. She’s been intrigued ever since. Her dissertation, in fact, was on the biomechanics of puffer inflation. It’s a defense mechanism which renders puffers too big – or makes them appear too scary – to be swallowed by predators. Some of Brainerd’s research footage was used to create the character of Bloat, the friendly puffer in the Academy Award-winning animated film “Finding Nemo.”

For the last decade, Brainerd has taught biology at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. She directed the Interdepartmental Program in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and served as curator of fishes, amphibians and reptiles at the Massachusetts Museum of Natural History.

But Brainerd always wanted to teach at Brown, which boasts one of the best morphology groups in the country. The opportunity to work with Stephen Gatesy, Tom Roberts, Sharon Swartz and Christine Janis, she said, is “like going to a scientific meeting every day. I am thrilled.”

Brainerd will continue her fish work – she is currently exploring the biomechanics of swimming muscles – and has plans to help build a special X-ray facility at Brown that would allow scientists to watch animals move in 3-D in real time. Like Brainerd’s research resume, the facility would be one of a kind.