Internship Reflections: The “Dirt” on Summer 2017 at DUSRC

By Lindsay Holsen, CEC/RTC Intern, Summer 2017

In June, I leapt from my previous knowledge base, which I had established at Lawrence University, into new intellectual territory at the Duke University Superfund Research Center.  I was grateful to be enveloped in new knowledge, to be a part of multiple research projects, and to learn about the intricacies of toxicology and community engagement.  I even entered the world of the worm C.elegans.   My internship was not only one role but many overlapping ones, from science communication and community engagement to research in the lab.

In the Community Engagement and Research Translation Core, I dove into the Community Engagement Core’s project that aims to assess and minimize risks of soil contaminant exposure for community gardens.  I helped to compile soil testing resources in addition to engaging with the community at the North Carolina Compost Council meeting and visiting several local gardens. Communicating Superfund research and knowledge in an accessible way means providing resources in multiple languages.  With the help of friends in the Nicholas School of the Environment who are native Spanish speakers, I constructed a new pathway of knowledge by translating some of our public resources to Spanish. I also made regular contributions to the Superfund Research Center’s blog. The leaders of both the Research Translation and Community Engagement Cores also unselfishly let me cross over to the dark side and into the Meyer Lab.

Fluorescing worms, dazzling in all their bright green intestinal splendor, were thankfully a limited sight during my adventures in the lab this summer.  Graduate student Tess Leuthner and I sought to characterize and detect heavy metal contamination in community garden soils using a genetically modified strain of C.elegans that would fluoresce under the stress of heavy metal exposure.  High fluorescence was expected to indicate high metal exposure while limited fluorescence would suggest less bioavailability of metals in the soil.  As exciting as it was to imagine the sight of glowing worms, we were happy that we only saw them in our control samples!

Participating in weekly lab meetings in the Meyer lab allowed me to engage with the other lab group members involved in various research projects from silver nanoparticles to PAH exposure. With tea in hand and an active brain, I enjoyed both contributing to (and mostly absorbing) the banter and knowledge about environmental health and toxicology topics. I learned bits and pieces about everything from mitochondrial toxicity to arsenic exposure from gold mining.  Coming from a small institution, it was a great opportunity to interact with scientists at a variety of levels of education from undergraduate to postdocs and professors.

Often I was able to use the knowledge and questions proposed in the lab setting to complement my work with the CEC and RTC and help to meet community needs. One of these opportunities arose when I volunteered at a community outreach event organized by Duke Superfund Research Center trainee Casey Lindberg. At the event, we shared different aspects of our research and its relationship to environmental and community health in an interactive setting.  Not every kid gets the opportunity to see Killifish embryos on their Sunday stroll!

Connecting with my coworkers at the Superfund Research Center was an integral piece to this super fun summer of Superfund research and communication!  Tess Leuthner, Bryan Luukinen, and Catherine Kastleman, among many other awesome Nicholas School colleagues, made work feel like the opposite of a “toxic” environment even though we were studying toxicity of Superfund-related contaminants!  I am extremely grateful for this exposure to environmental health sciences research, and I look forward to watching the progress of the new research projects throughout the next five years!