Culturing Independent Inquiry

In the tissue culture lab in the University of Mary Washington’s Jepson Hall, Chloe Fusselman donned a white lab coat, put on gloves and carefully picked up a beaker of liquid. She was practicing her sterile lab techniques with her adviser, Professor of Biology Deborah O’Dell, since the methods are critical to her research project this semester. Fusselman and fellow senior biology major Kara Arbogast are both researching the chemical bisphenol A, known as BPA, in separate projects. Both students received undergraduate research grants from UMW for their work.

Senior Chloe Fusselman practices sterile techniques in a lab in Jepson Hall

Fusselman’s project looks at the effect of BPA, a chemical found in many everyday household products, on healthy prostate cells. BPA, O’Dell explained, mimics the hormone estrogen and is frequently linked to breast cancer.

“In the literature, there are some references that BPA could be linked to prostate cancer, too,” O’Dell said. Research like Fusselman’s will help scientists find out.

As Fusselman developed her research topic last semester, she became fascinated by the possible links between the chemical, found in everything from plastic water bottles to baby bottles and soft plastic toys, and health problems in humans.

“BPA is in a lot more things than people think,” Fusselman said. “The research is important because it can open people’s eyes.”

Arbogast’s project examines the same chemical, but rather than cancer, looks at its effect on child development, specifically of the brain and reproductive systems, by analyzing rat fetuses that have been exposed to the chemical.

Professor of Biology Deborah O’Dell (background) observes senior Chloe Fusselman in the lab

The results of her study could have implications for humans, since childhood exposure to chemicals like BPA may lead to long-term health problems. In fact, a recent study received national media attention for suggesting a possible link between BPA and childhood obesity.

“This is why moms shouldn’t give babies bottles that contain BPA,” Arbogast said. “[The chemical] stays in children’s systems longer because they can’t metabolize it like adults.”

This isn’t her first research project at UMW. Last year, she examined the levels of estrogen levels in dairy products.

“I definitely would recommend it for anyone interested in research,” she said of the undergraduate research experience at UMW, which gives students the independence to come up with their own topics with the support of expert faculty.  “It’s really cool that you can do that here. Not everyone can say they designed their own research project.”

Senior Kara Arbogast shows lab techniques she uses in her research project

For Fusselman, the experience is perfectly timed with her application to a physical therapy graduate program.

“The independent study is helping me prepare for grad school,” she said. “It takes everything I have learned in classes and labs and puts meaning behind it.”

Experiences like those of Arbogast and Fusselman not only contribute vital information to the biology field, but help students become knowledgeable and well-rounded consumers of information.

“Undergraduate research allows students to get an appreciation for how science is done,” O’Dell said, explaining that the program fosters both technical skills and critical thinking. “They are applying what they have learned through the biology major.”

Photos taken by Kimmie Barkley ’14

About Brynn Boyer

Brynn Boyer is assistant director of media and public relations and a 2010 graduate of UMW.

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