Toxins in the environment + hormones

By Akshay Save, REU intern 2012


At the beginning of the summer, I began working in Dr. Ferguson’s environmental and chemical engineering laboratory. Having just completed my freshman year at Duke and aiming to be a Math and Chemistry double major, I was extremely excited to begin working on my project with my graduate student mentor, Katy Stencel. In scientific terms, our project had to do with developing a high-throughput plate assay to process different environmental toxicants for effects on the endocrine system. In everyday English, that means finding a quick and efficient way to screen toxins (often pesticides) to make sure they do not have negative effects on thyroid hormones. This ongoing project has two distinct phases: a development phase, where we aim to create an effective method to test these toxins, and a testing phase, where we will be able to screen different chemicals to determine whether or not they have the potential to disrupt the endocrine system.

Already, just one paragraph into this blog, I’m sure a few important questions have popped into quite a few of your heads: Why should I care? What makes this research important? However, if we take a step back, these questions have very simple answers, even though the problems themselves don’t have simple solutions.

Every day, thousands of tons of pesticides and insecticides are sprayed and administered to crops and lawns, accumulating in our food, our rivers, and even the air we breathe. People can easily be exposed to these toxins and it is very important to understand how they can affect life so that organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate how much of it is produced. Unfortunately for us, a lot of these dangerous pesticides and toxicants are already out there, polluting our environment. While ideally this testing should be conducted BEFORE the compounds are released into the environment, the testing process can take several years before any coherent and concrete results can be analyzed. This incidentally brings me to why my research in particular is useful: by creating a quick and efficient testing method, the results of my research may help speed up the testing of certain toxins, so that governmental regulatory agencies can pull these toxicants off of the market and reduce further degradation of the environment and our own health.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of my research experience has been learning about the ingenious methods of detection that scientists use in their line of work. Imagine how difficult it would be to construct a house if the blocks were all invisible. Ignoring the potential consequences of living in a clear house, a contractor would have to take into account special methods to make sure that certain bricks were in the right place as well as develop a completely different way of handling the blocks. This problem is a constant challenge to deal with in academic research. Perhaps a stock solution of protein is more dilute than expected – or maybe that solution has been improperly made. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell just by looking at the solutions. In response to this problem, scientists have developed incredibly clever techniques that take advantage of various chemical and biological properties to confirm the identity and concentration of their solutions. For example, in my project, we used fluorescence polarization, a technique that measured differences in light absorption and emission to determine whether or not a particular hormone was bound to its receptor. In a sense (no pun intended), scientists use various techniques to make up for the deficiencies of sight, taste, smell, touch, and hearing when dealing with chemicals on an atomic level.

Though I have spent most of my summer at Duke working in the laboratory, I was recently offered the opportunity to conduct field research with my lab in Kiawah Island, South Carolina. A beautiful golf resort where the PGA championship is being held in a few weeks, Kiawah Island actually uses its waste water to irrigate the golf courses, showing a commitment towards reducing the water drain that characterizes most golf courses. At Kiawah, I have been waking up earlier than ever, collecting samples from our five different water sources, taking care of fish in our mobile marine units, conducting daily water quality tests to determine chlorine, nitrate, nitrite, and ammonia levels, and trying to make myself as useful as possible. At the end of our two week trip, I am looking forward to dissecting about eighty fish and conducting various tests on them to check for any abnormalities in their anatomy that may result from exposure to different pesticides or chemical agents. I feel very privileged to have been given this opportunity since it has given me a short glimpse into the life of a field researcher – here in the field, we have to be prepared to handle every tiny setback and every slight miscalculation. This has definitely been a very unique experience for me and I have learned a lot about the field component to research.