A tale of two scientists

Well, of three scientists, really.

As a scientist, it seems that going to conferences is part of the job description. But not all conferences are created equal! In May, we (Superfund students Audrey Bone and Daniel Brown), along with Bryan Clark (a postdoc) attended the Pollutant Responses in Marine Organisms conference in Portugal.  Known as PRIMO, this conference is different from the typical scientific conferences that’s organized by a specific scientific society (like the Ecological Society of America, American Chemistry Society, and the Society of Toxicology). Instead, each year for the last 17 years a group of passionate scientists who are concerned about chemicals affecting ocean health organize PRIMO. One goal of PRIMO is to encourage international scientific collaboration, and thus is held alternately in North America and Europe. This year, PRIMO was hosted by the University of Algarve in Faro, Portugal.

We went to PRIMO to share some of the Superfund-related research we’ve been doing recently…

From Our Perspective

At conferences like PRIMO, scientists give 15-20 minute presentations about their most current and exciting research. Generally, this includes data that has not been published yet. This makes the conference more exciting and feels like a sneak peek! One of the reasons conferences are so important is the time between the development of newest, coolest data that could inform your research and actually seeing that data published can be long.  In more competitive fields (cancer research, etc.) people can be weird about presenting their newest data because they are worried about being scooped (with good reason!). But in the “touchy feely” enviro world people tend to be chiller.


Daniel Brown gave a presentation…

Sublethal Embryonic Exposure to Complex PAH Mixtures Alters Later Life Behavior and Swimming Performance in Fundulus heteroclitus

Which really means:

Dan took killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus) that hadn’t hatched out of their eggs yet and put them into contact with PAHs – but not at a concentration high enough to kill them. He wanted to see how the PAHs would change how the killifish developed while in the eggs and if any abnormal development would change behavior or their ability to swim. He compared these fish to fish that didn’t come into contact with PAHs. His talk described the differences he saw in the two fish populations.

Bryan Clark gave TWO presentations…
  • The role of differential metabolism and DNA-adduct formation in the resistance of Atlantic Killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus) to cancer

What this really means:

Past work has shown that killifish living in PAHs at the contaminated Atlantic Wood Superfund site have liver tumors. But, our lab found that these fish are actually resistant to developing cancer when they come into contact with one particular PAH (Benzo(a)pyrene) as juveniles. We wanted to find out how fish resist cancer and thought they might metabolize the PAHs differently, which would create fewer places where the PAHs would bind to DNA. We found that these fish metabolize the chemical differently, but there was no major difference in the number of metabolites bound to DNA between the cancer-resistant fish from the contaminated site and fish from our reference site.

  • Compound- and mixture-specific differences in resistance to PAHs and PCB-126 among Fundulus heteroclitus subpopulations throughout the Elizabeth River estuary (Virginia, USA)

Which really means:

Some of our earlier work showed that killifish living in the contaminated AW Superfund site are resistant to developmental cardiac toxicity caused by PAHs, and this resistance is linked to suppression of a specific pathway (aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR)). The goal of this study was to find out exactly how PAHs cause this resistance. We exposed killifish embryos from different sites to PAHs and PCB-126 and found that they varied in both their susceptibility to heart deformities and activity of the AHR pathway.  Overall, we demonstrated that contamination in the Elizabeth River is having a widespread effect on killifish subpopulations throughout the Elizabeth River estuary.


There are also several poster sessions where presenters stand beside a poster describing and illustrating their work and interact with other conference attendees. These sessions are also great for socializing, setting up collaborations and throwing around business cards.

Audrey Bone had a beautiful poster…

Photocatalysis of Benzo(a)pyrene using titanium dioxide nanoparticles results in increased toxicity to larval zebrafish (Danio rerio)


The goal of this research is to understand how using TiO2 NP to breakdown benzo(a)pyrene or other PAHs in the environment alters the overall toxicity. When PAHs are broken down, they form other chemicals that could possibly be more toxic to fish or other animals. It’s important to know whether using something like TiO2 NP to remediate PAHs actually results in less toxicity.


Why go to conferences?

Presenting new research is integral really important part of professional development for a scientist and is often a requirement for career advancement (like promotions) and writing grant applications. But they also provide an excellent learning opportunity for becoming familiar with the current state of research in the field of aquatic toxicology.

As a student, it’s exciting to see where the direction of research like yours is going and what that means for your project. Since the concept of my (Audrey) research, understanding how the degradation of benzo(a)pyrene by titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles affects toxicity to zebrafish,  hasn’t been studied much, I was happy to see two posters next to mine doing similar research. I hadn’t talked to anyone else before who was doing this kind of work and it was very motivating to talk to these students and share our experiences. Conferences remind you that what you’re doing is important and that there are other people who care about what you are doing and are interested in asking the same questions.

While student talks are often interesting and insightful, the principle investigators themselves often give some of the best presentations at PRIMO. Nat Scholz’s videos of dying salmon in storm water runoff contaminated rivers and creeks captured the audience’s attention. Through collaborative work being done at NOAA, Scholz and others have been investigating the detrimental consequences of storm water runoff in Seattle’s Coho Salmon populations. Salmon swimming in storm water contaminated urban environments lost equilibrium, thrashed around in the water, and ultimately experienced abnormally high level of pre-spawn mortality. The research at NOAA highlights the importance of monitoring the biological health of our lakes, rivers, and streams. Continuing work will investigate the specific components of storm water runoff responsible for the effects observed in Coho Salmon.