For a zebrafish, it depends on the water it’s swimming in. Ellen Du Pre, professor of biology, is working with four students, as well as biology colleague Nicole Palenske, to study the effects of triclosan on heart rate. The tiny fish, which can be as small as an eyelash when newly hatched, is transparent, and the students can easily count the heartbeats under a microscope.
Triclosan is a chemical used in disinfecting soaps, and it has made its way into tap water systems. In preliminary research, Du Pre and students have learned that when fish are exposed to certain levels of the chemical—specifically the levels found in drinking water—heart rate goes down significantly. This may be linked to a decrease in metabolism, which some scientists have suggested may be a contributing factor for some of the high childhood obesity rates in the U.S.
“It does make me nervous,” she says. “I don’t think people realize all the chemicals we are being exposed to. I don’t think our bodies are prepared to deal with them all.”
The research done by Du Pre and her students was recently chosen from more than 3,500 submissions by the National Council on Undergraduate Research for presentation at the 2013 conference in April.
“This is very exciting,” Du Pre says. “The work of these Central College students has been recognized for its unique contribution to this field of study.”
Du Pre has always prided herself on her teaching and her individual interactions with students, which is part of what attracted to her to Central. She is now in her 11th year as a faculty member. “One of the reasons I like Central is because the faculty here want to teach our students,” she says. “I really do think about it as a family.”
Du Pre collaborates not just with students but with other faculty members. Cathy Haustein, professor of chemistry, is studying the effects of triclosan on plants. And Du Pre and Palenske have been working on the zebrafish project since the summer of 2012, when they began with a team of four students and funding from the Monticello Project. When the initial results looked promising, the group decided to keep on checking heartbeats and collecting data into the school year. One of the students is planning to use the research for her senior honors thesis in the spring.
The students are testing the zebrafish in water with different levels of triclosan, but so far their most significant results have come from the levels found in drinking water. Du Pre isn’t surprised by what her students have found. “We produce far more chemicals than I think most people realize,” she says. “We’re exposed to all of them, often without knowing. It’s not just one; it’s a cocktail of them.”
Du Pre has always been interested in the effects of chemicals on the human body. Before triclosan, she involved students in her research in atrazine, one of the most common herbicides in the world, which has been found to be carcinogenic. Her passion for figuring out why things go wrong with the human body goes all the way back to her undergrad days at the University of Minnesota-Mankato and her time spent earning a Ph.D. in Biomedical Science at Wright State University.
“I have always had a curiosity about how things work and how we fix them,” says Du Pre. “The human body is so easy to relate to because we all go through the same processes. When things don’t go well, it’s important that we understand why so that we can make a difference.”
In addition to her individualized research with students, Du Pre is known around Vermeer Science Center as queen of the health sciences. Over the years, she has guided hundreds of Central students on to medical school and professional health programs, and she’s always there to answer questions from prospective doctors, nurses and physicians assistants, to mention just a few. Du Pre is especially proud of Central’s strong record of admitting students to graduate health programs.
“I think we do a fantastic job of advising in the sciences,” she brags about her colleagues. “So students are happy and successful and the word gets out.”
Lately, Du Pre has come to realize the increasing importance of non-medical personnel in health care, such as communications and IT professionals. With the Baby Boomers growing older and the health care industry adding jobs across many sectors, Du Pre understands the expanded role health care will continue to play in the future.
That means even more students are going to get the chance to interact with Du Pre—and her view of students as “multidimensional individuals rather than people sitting in my classroom for three hours a week.” The students should feel privileged for the opportunity, whether it’s in-depth research or just a 20-minute advising session.
But Du Pre feels privileged to teach and interact with students in all kinds of ways, too. She recalls the birth of her second child, when she recognized the nursing student observing her delivery as a former student. When the doctor left, the student hung back and began to cry. She told her professor that after a disappointing exam, Du Pre had come up to her in the parking lot and told her not to give up. “I was going to go home and quit that day but you encouraged me to stay,” she told her former professor. “Now I will graduate in three days!”
Du Pre reflects on that tale while sitting in her office in front of a painting done by another student—one who became a scientist because of her influence. “I had no idea that little thing that I said, which is something I would have said to anybody, made such a huge difference,” Du Pre says. “Those are the reasons you teach—the students who tell you those stories.”