Students Explore Human Health in Lab

Kenzie Yedlin '18 searched for new therapies to treat a rare type of breast cancer. Photo credit Kenzie Yedlin.

Kenzie Yedlin '18 searched for new therapies to treat a rare type of breast cancer. Photo credit Kenzie Yedlin.

By Elizabeth Zhou

Hard sciences might not be the first association most people make with Middlebury College. But the critical thinking and spirit of discovery that the liberal arts curriculum seeks to promote are well in line with the skills needed to operate in a real-world laboratory setting. This summer, many students put their in-classroom training to the test as they took on research positions both on- and off-campus. Covering a diverse range of topics, three students’ summers of sci- ence all culminated in positive affirmations about their academic paths — as well as contributed to an ever-growing field of study on human health.

Eliza Jaeger ’17 worked as a research assistant for Associate Professor of Biology Mark Spritzer. Her team included Leslie Panella ’15.5, Erin Miller ’16.5 and Lauren Honican ’15, who is working post-grad as a lab technician. Professor Spritzer’s research centers on neuroendocrinology, the pathways and effects of hormones in the brain. Over the course of ten weeks, Jaeger studied the effects of primary sex hormones (in this case, testosterone and estradiol) in rodent brains on the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. One project aimed to determine whether varying levels of testosterone in aged male rats causes them to be better at completing spatial memory tasks. The results of this pilot study showed that higher concentrations of testosterone tend to correlate with better spatial memory.

Why is this research relevant? Because the decreases that humans see in primary sex hormones (testosterone and estradiol) are possibly correlated with age-related cognitive decline. By studying the effects of replacing these hormones in aged rodents, this type of research could lead to valuable insights on the relationship between changes in neuroendocrinology and aging.

From castration surgeries to counting brain cells in sectioned tissue, dealing with rodents in the laboratory had no shortage of challenges.

“Working with animals is one of the greatest privileges I’ve had at Middlebury, and it does not come without re- sponsibility. Because we were working with live animals, someone always had to come in on weekends to check on the ani- mals, and make sure food was rationed correctly and injections were administered on time,” Jaeger said. “I would say I have enormous respect and gratitude for the animals that we use in our experiments, and that working with them was a great but challenging experience.”

With hopes of earning a graduate degree in evolutionary neuroscience, Jaeger felt that her intense laboratory experience this summer helped to reinforce her resolve in her academic career. She plans to continue her research in the fall and spring semesters with Professor Spritzer, as well as write a research thesis during her senior year.

Meanwhile this summer, just a few rooms over inside Bicentennial Hall, Muriel Lavallee ’18 served as a research assistant for Professor Catherine Combelles in the department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. She worked alongside five other Middlebury students, Thilan Tudor ’16, Katherine Kucharzyck ’16, Madsy Schneider ’16, Julie Erlich ’17.5, Jennie Mejaes ’16 and a recent alum and a post-doctorate who will take on Professor Combelles’ responsibilities while she is on sabbatical in France dur- ing the school year. Over the course of eight weeks, the team aimed to uncover the ways in which endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in plastics (such as BPA and BPS) impact fertility and reproduction. Whether we realize it or not, we are surrounded by harmful substances. Many plastics with ‘BPA-free’ labels actually contain some BPS, and we constantly absorb these chemicals through our skin or ingest them from the plastics we use to hold our food and drinks.

“Being able to focus on this research for eight weeks in the summer was a unique opportunity and I’ve been exposed to so much,” Lavalle said. “Professor Combelles is brilliant and she has put together a lab that is collaborative and exciting to be a part of.”

Lavallee worked on folliculogenesis, the process in which ovarian follicles develop and secrete a mature egg. Women are born with a limited reserve of ovarian follicles, and current fertility tests use ultrasound to detect a progressed type of follicle, called the antral follicle, which is used as an indicator of the total number of microscopic primordial follicles in the ovarian reserve. Lavallee investigated granulosa cells, which surround oocytes in antral follicles and secrete hormones essential for oocyte development. The project holds important implication for our understanding of human fertility and the life cycle, and she plans to continue her work into the school year.

As Jaeger and Lavallee experimented with follicles, chemicals and rodents galore on campus, Kenzie Yedlin ’18 was hard at work on her own scientific endeavors on the other side of the country. Stationed at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Yedlin participated in a Summer Undergraduate Research Fel- lowship (SURF) in the department of pharmacology and toxicology. The goal of her lab team was to find a more effective treatment for triple negative breast cancer. Also known as TNBC, the disease accounts for 12-24 percent of breast cancer. Because it affects breast cancer cells that lack the three common receptors that other breast cancers drugs target, TNBC is more difficult to treat.

Yedlin and her team hypothesized that pretreatment of triple negative breast cancer cells with natural products would increase the potency of doxorubicin — a prescription drug that treats many types of cancers — allowing for the administration of a lower and less toxic dosage. Their project examined 16 different natural products from Papua New Guinea, a small island that accounts for six percent of Earth’s biodiversity.

An aspiring neuroscience major, Yedlin found the transition from college courses to real-world lab work to be somewhat overwhelming at first.

“I knew how to pipette, I knew how to measure things,” she explained. “We used some of the same tools, but often in different ways. It’s a completely different environment because at school you’re doing very specific things following very specific procedures, whereas at the lab you have to create your own procedure. Even though I knew how to pipette, I didn’t know why we were pipetting, or how to do it in a certain progression. The hardest part was feeling comfortable.”

By the end of the eight-week program, however, Yedlin expressed appreciation for the nitty-gritty of the hands-on research process, as she had achieved a deep familiarity with the tools and people around her.

“The stereotypical view of a science lab or science in general is that it’s very cutting edge and that it’s kind of a tough world. And it is, but it was nice to find a niche where there were really down-to-earth people, where mistakes were allowed,” she said, recounting incidents in which she accidentally damaged lab equipment on her first and last days on the job.

Back at the College, Jaeger experienced a similar sense of connection with her peers and her work. Despite any initial frustration, the care and precision she devoted to her lab project ultimately yielded great rewards.

“During one of my first intense cell-counting days, I was becoming discouraged by the monotony of counting small dark cells in rat neural tissue, when I came across what was unmistakably a mature neuron, complete with defined soma and dendrites. I remember that it really hit me then that I was looking at real brain tissue under a microscope,” Jaeger recounted of one of her most revelatory moments. “I called one of my lab mates over to look at the neuron, and we both got really excited. I remember this nerdy moment fondly, because it reminds me that there are people out there who 100 percent share my enthusiasm for the brain and all its mysteries, and that I can study it for the rest of my life if I want to.”

“We’re doing something that matters,” Lavallee added. “I’m so thankful for this experience and excited to continue this work during the upcoming school year.”

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