Turtle research leads to European travel opportunity

by Jess  |   

Their research on red-eared slider turtles is taking two UAA student researchers to Florence, Italy, this July, where they'll present at the Society for Experimental Biology Main Meeting. They both work in Professor Jonathan Stecyk's lab in the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building.

Nice way to top off an academic year, don't you think?

The two are Savannah Green, a May 2018 UAA graduate in health sciences with a minor in psychology, headed in the fall to a three-year doctoral program in physical therapy at Shenandoah University in Virginia; and Diarmid Hall, soon bound for dental school. He'd finished a criminal justice degree at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, but decided legal work might be too dry. He's been at UAA for three years getting his dental school prerequisites completed.

They both found their way into Stecyk's lab through Biology 108, a fundamental six-credit class that coordinates classroom and lab work. While they both have research projects aimed at understanding the biology behind low oxygen survival strategies of turtles, they are working on different hypotheses as well as different body parts and functions.

Health sciences major Savannah Green prepares a solution in the research wing of the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Savannah's work asks how - under low oxygen conditions - the turtle is able to shunt blood flow to life-essential organs like the heart, brain and the liver, while constricting blood flow to the less-essential gut. Diarmid is using cardiac tissues bathed in chemicals that can either speed up muscle contraction or slow it down, to determine if nervous system control of the heart is changed under different temperature and oxygen environments.

I met both of them in a lab not far from the planetarium lobby, where each explained their research in terms that a broad audience could understand. The turtle can serve as a model for mammals, and thus, humans. While the actual impact of this work on human health is in the distant future, understanding how turtles survive under low oxygen conditions may illuminate how to help a human body experiencing low oxygen conditions.

"No matter what pathology kills you," Savannah said, "whether that is heart attack or stroke or cancer, your cells die when they stop receiving oxygen." Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in Alaska, she said. "If you could buy (human victims) just a little more time, you could improve the effect astronomically."

Still, she said, "we are a long way from that. We are just trying to describe the mechanisms that turtles are able to use to survive. Medicine can catch up after that."

One more thing. On behalf of other undergraduates looking for similar research opportunities at UAA, I asked for their best tips on finding your way into a lab with challenging projects like theirs (and maybe even earning a trip to Italy someday - grin).

Savannah's take

Savannah struggled a while to get into research at UAA. She knew she wanted the experience, but all her emails, based on studying professors and their interests on UAA's website, just weren't leading her anywhere.

Until she met Professor Rachael Hannah, who willingly sat down and talked with her. Doors started to open her junior year with Biology 108. Professor Hannah taught the class. She and Professor Stecyk became co-PIs on Savannah's project, and Professor Hannah helped get her started in the lab.

First, Savannah had to complete a literature search and design the experiment protocols. This was a big challenge, since she hadn't completed Biology 108 yet. But over time, her competence grew and work progressed well. Her research in the summer of 2017 was covered by an INBRE/OURS fellowship; last fall she took Biology 498, and this spring she took Biology 499, as a way to get academic credit for her research. The work she just finished became her honors capstone project. She plans to submit the paper for consideration to the Journal of Experimental Biology.

"A lot of my effort in the beginning was 'Does this work?'" Savannah explained. "And now that we found that it does ... we can get into the nitty gritty of looking at more specific channels and knowing that the information is viable and defendable."

She used tissue from the brain and from the mesentery, a membrane that holds the digestive system in place. Under low oxygen conditions, the turtle shunts blood and oxygen to the brain while restricting it to the mesentery. Her essential question was 'How does it do this?' Would her research protocols work on turtles to deliver the answer?

"This protocol has never been used on turtles before," she said. "The systems we are using are normally used on mammals, which have seven times the blood pressure of turtles. They also have bigger vessels than turtles. So the first thing we were looking at was, 'OK, does this protocol work for turtles? Can we get a response that is readable and will they survive?'"

Her protocol included using a wire myograph applied to thin strips of dissected turtle tissue. She mounted the brain and mesentery tissue on wires connected to a transducer that can read muscle contraction, and then applied potassium solutions of varying potency to see how the tissue reacted.

"What we don't know is how they are able to shunt blood. How do they constrict some vessels in their gut and keep the ones in their brain open? We don't know what mechanisms they are using to do this. We change concentrations of potassium because that is the particular ion we are looking at."

Her second hypothesis asked if turtles would respond the way mammals do to potassium. Under low potassium concentrations, vessels vasodilate, or get bigger. But at higher potassium concentrations, they constrict.

"We found, yes, they do respond similarly to mammals, which is really important," she said. "They can be compared to humans for medical research."

She also looked at the difference between turtles in summer and in winter, when their physiology changes. Under cold temperature conditions with little oxygen, low potassium levels actually caused gut blood vessels to constrict instead of dilate. "It may be a player in the shunting mechanism," she said. But, "we found that in the brain, potassium does not constrict the vessels, so the brain is receiving oxygen the whole time."

Understanding all this took long days in the lab, stretching from six to eight hours, with the occasional 12-hour day. Her senior year, she balanced research, coursework, working at a local physical therapy clinic, and applying for graduate school.

"It was intense," she said. But not quite as bad, she suggested with a rueful grin, as taking biology, chemistry and physics all during her junior year.

Tips for other students

Savannah says she wishes she'd taken Biology 108 sooner than her junior year, since it became the gateway to her research opportunity.

She recommended her health sciences degree because it offers foundational classes that prepare a student for further study in everything from pharmacy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, physician's assistant, medical school or health education.

It may be a cliché, she said, "but don't give up." She had to take chemistry twice, a result of frequent moves as a child and missing out on some early algebra education. But she doesn't regret the retake. In her turtle research, she needed chemistry to prepare potassium solutions; by the time she actually needed them, she was comfortable with the chemistry.

I asked Savannah what she got out of the research. Her answers were interesting. "Science is a lot of trial and error," she said. "Sure it is precise and has to be accurate. But you are learning what works, and you don't know what problems are going to be there until they hit you. You have to be a little creative to find a solution for them."

She said it gave her more perspective on science. "You have to be very careful about any conclusions you make off of the data. They are numbers and you can write about numbers in a lot of different ways."

And finally, "It's very hard work. Your professors deserve a lot of respect."

Diarmid's take

Savannah offered that Diarmid is one of the most congenial student researchers in the lab. He didn't argue. He said he really enjoyed the camaraderie of all the lab work required in Biology 108, and that led him to accept an invitation from Professor Stecyk to work in the lab. He too has benefited from INBRE/OURS fellowships, as well as taking Biology 498.

Diarmid (his is a Scottish name chosen by his half-Scottish parents) is working solely with cardiac tissue. His objective is to examine how temperature and oxygen deprivation affect atria and ventrical responses to the hormone adrenaline and the drug carbamylcholine, an analog of the naturally produced acetylcholine. Adrenaline acts like a gas pedal, he said, and carbamylcholine acts like a brake.

Diarmid Hall working with cardiac tissue in Jonathan Stecyk's lab in the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building. (Photo by Kathleen McCoy)

The Sunday I visited him in the lab, he had four glass chambers bubbling with submerged cardiac tissue. He's working with four groups of tissue: one from a turtle kept at 21 degrees Celsius with normal oxygen levels, one at 21 degrees Celsius with diminished oxygen levels. The other two were from turtles kept at 5 degrees Celsius, with normal oxygen or diminished oxygen.

"I am just examining how each of these chemicals affects those groups and comparing them," he said, pointing to a chart on his computer that showed that tissue under normal oxygen conditions and tissue deprived of oxygen both show an impact from adrenaline.

He'll repeat the experiment with six tissue samples under each condition, for a total of 70 runs. "We need all those numbers to actually see what it (adrenaline and carbamylocholine) are doing," he said. "We note outliers when we get them."

He glanced at the bubbling chambers. "It's going well," he said. "These two are both contracting right now." The contractions were slow, about two a minute, and barely discernible to my untrained eye. With a touch of a silver knob, he incrementally pulled the tiny strips out to a maximum length. Only at the full stretch did he add the adrenaline.

The contractions get stronger and faster, he noted. Turtles can change their blood content based on cold and oxygen conditions. "So we are seeing if it is the blood content level or the receptors in the heart. They can modify the receptors to respond differently to adrenaline; there's no point in having these receptors active if they are not going to use them" in a low oxygen environment, he said.

He's still gathering results and, like Savannah, working on a paper for consideration by the Journal for Experimental Biology. You'll have to read the finished paper to know what he finds out. "We are at the data collection stage," he said. "We're throwing a wide net to see what we can get and what we can learn from it."

Next fall, he'll be back in the lab with a new experiment. Sometime next spring he'll start his dental school applications.

Diarmid's tips for other students

Although he doesn't plan a life in research, he's really enjoyed the opportunity to be in the lab. He's developed new skills for analyzing data. "I'm very good at Excel now," he said. "I've had to analyze thousands and thousands of different things. And I am good at setting up an experiment and looking at all the things that could go wrong, all the variables."

His advice for undergraduates who want to do research is to find a professor they like in an area they are interested in. Take a class from them. "It seems like it's all networking," he said.

Diarmid is living proof that an undergraduate can change his mind on career paths. He says he chose dentistry over law because he likes working with his hands, and he thinks he can make a visit to the dentist less stressful for patients. He's looking forward to the challenge.

Finally, from the professor

I asked Professor Stecyk what strengths Savannah and Diarmid brought to the lab, and also what advice he had for students who'd like similar opportunities in UAA science labs.

First, he complimented both Savannah and Diarmid on their dedication. "The students have been in the lab every weekend since October to fit in these long experiments," he said. "They also worked in the lab over the Christmas semester break and the recent long holiday weekend. Their projects are on par with graduate level research. They have both excelled at the challenge."

His tips to undergraduates include the advice to start early in your degree program looking for research. Don't wait until your senior year; professors are interested in those with some "long-term" interest, so be ready to commit to multiple semesters.

Stecyk said all the students he's ever selected have "demonstrated genuine interest in the research." Likewise, he added, "It is the dedicated students who ... are rewarded with, for example, trips to conferences abroad."

Written by Kathleen McCoy for the UAA Office of Advancement


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