Meet a scientist – Dan Brown

By Savannah Volkoff

Dan on a Pumpkin
Dan on a Pumpkin

Most people refer to you by your full name, spoken like one word (i.e., DanBrown). However, I often hear you refer to yourself as “Daniel”. How do you prefer people address you?

I prefer “Daniel” because that’s what my mom calls me. So, a lot of it is around this idea of identity as a person. My mom calls me Daniel but one of my best friends from undergrad would always call me “Danny”. And for some reason I was really comfortable with him calling me Danny. If someone else called me Danny it would be a problem– totally unacceptable. So, I think context has a lot to do with it. I think someday when I’m a professor, I’ll be called “Dr. Dan” or something like that. It just depends on the context.

What is your background and how did you select this field?

At Elon, I majored in Biology and also received a Chemistry minor. I had the privilege of completing an undergraduate honors research thesis with Dr. Linda Niedziela as my mentor. Dr. N was a genetics toxicologist by training and worked with Chinese hamsters and chromosomal breakages. I was her first student to work with zebrafish as a model. We studied developmental and behavioral alterations in zebrafish embryos and larvae following waterborne exposure to TCDD (dioxin). Dr. N was an amazing mentor and working with her really got me excited about the field of toxicology. We even used a few modified behavioral assays pioneered by Dr. Ed Levin. So when I came to Duke, I was already excited about early life exposures and given Dr. Richard Di Giulio’s work with the AHR pathway and Ed’s behavioral work, Duke seemed like a great fit.

Why did you select Rich’s lab?

I selected Rich’s lab because it seemed like a great fit for my own personal interests and career goals in academic teaching and research. Rich is an amazing mentor to be associated with in this field–the guy literally is the author of a book called “The Toxicology of Fishes” (co-author David Hinton). Rich’s work was a great continuation of my undergraduate work and I hope to do small liberal arts research using killifish and zebrafish as models in the future.

What was most interesting to you about the research in Rich’s lab?

I was really interested in the evolutionary questions being asked in the Superfund work in Rich’s lab. We tend to think of adaptations taking place over tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. What’s really amazing about the adapted killifish populations living in the Elizabeth River, is the fact that we are talking about industry contamination that has only been around since the early 1900’s. In fish generational time, it turns out that’s actually a lot of time to adapt. But when you start thinking about anthropogenic inputs being responsible for this incredible adaptation to PAHs–it’s pretty wild.

What’s it like to take field trips to the Elizabeth River? What was your first experience along the river like?

It’s funny because I’d been told that it’s not the most beautiful field site ever, but I was naïve when I first started out. You think you’re going to be going to the beach and you’ll have your swim suit and sunglasses on and it’s going to be this beautiful, pristine place. I knew it was polluted, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. In the area of North Carolina where I’m from, there used to be a lot of furniture and stuff like that, but I’d never really experienced anything like Norfolk and the area that was so built up with industry and military installations (mainly the Navy). It was just a totally different environment. I describe it to friends by saying “you wouldn’t want to raise a family there”. It’s a pretty industrialized area and it looks like a hard place to live. When you actually get to the site, you can smell the creosote in the air. I will say that since they’ve started the remediation projects, even the construction of the bridge that’s located there, things have looked tremendously better but you can still see the footprint of industrialization everywhere you look. So, my first impression was that it was going to be the beach and my current impression is that it’s getting better, but it’s not there yet.

What has been your favorite experiment in grad school?

I think the work I’m currently doing with the swim test has been my favorite experiment. It’s the experiment that I love to hate. The idea of it is really, really good. I’m asking a pragmatic, really applied question. We’ve worried for a long time about the acute effects of creosote and individual PAH exposure to see what happens developmentally.  There hasn’t been as much focus, specifically in our case, with the adapted population when it comes to, subtle exposure early in development and track development to adulthood to see some of the costs of being an adapted killifish.

What are your future career plans?

Conference Presentation
Conference Presentation

I’m hoping to become a small liberal arts college professor. I’ve always enjoyed teaching others and mentoring students through research projects. Some of it has to do with completing my undergrad at Elon University, a small liberal arts college in western North Carolina. I feel that teaching is very centered on the students and the development of student knowledge. One thing that is pretty unique about an environment like that is you get to do a lot of research and have a really close relationship with your mentor. Your mentor is not necessarily writing grants as their primary focus. Instead, they’re enabling you to become a better scientist and researcher. They are a lot more hands-on. The model in an R1 university seems to be that the Postdocs act more as the hands-on research mentors. That’s not to say that at an R1 you can’t be a good teacher or interact with your students but that’s not the tendency because there is a lot more focus on grant writing. In terms of what I’ve enjoyed about being a graduate student, I really like interacting with scientists just as they’re building that foundational knowledge, helping them grapple with ideas of how to design an initial experiment. I’m most interested in participating in the process of mentorship from building a foundational base to creating an independently thinking scientist that knows proper technique and how to ask good questions and is excited about becoming a scientist in the field.