You use chemicals every day like soaps, lotions, and toothpaste. Once those chemicals wash down the drain, are they safe for the next animal (like a fish) that might come into contact with them? Erica Brockmeier studies how animals respond when they are exposed to toxic chemicals. The goal of her project is to develop a system to more efficiently determine what type of chemicals that animals (including humans!) are exposed to. This work can ultimately impact chemical testing and safety procedures for the products that we use every day. I met her because she’s also a science communication enthusiast who’s passionate about using new forums to share her research. I sat her down to get the teatime version of what she does for her job.
Brockmeier is currently a post-doctoral researcher, which literally means she’s an “after PhD” researcher. It’s traditionally a short-term position that gives researchers more training in their field before they move on to a more permanent research position. She works in the Institute of Integrative Biology at the University of Liverpool in the UK. Unlike other researchers, her work is funded by a personal care product company but she’s based in an academic lab focused on computational biology. Her work is a unique blend of both basic and applied toxicology research.
Toxicologists study how chemicals cause damage or stress to animals, plants, and humans. There are thousands of chemicals in use by companies and in household products and toxicologists make sure that what we use isn’t harmful. One of the first things to do with a new chemical is to classify it based on what it does after it enters the body. Then, a class-specific method can be used to determine how dangerous that chemical might be. Assessing risk is much easier when there’s one method per chemical class rather than one method for each of the thousands of chemicals currently in use.
Narcotics are one such class of chemical. The word might bring to mind illicit drug use, but for a toxicologist, a narcotic is any chemical that impacts the function of biological membranes. Cell membranes are barriers responsible for allowing certain materials into or out of the cell, but narcotics can cause cells to become “leaky”. Hormones, ions, and other molecules that are usually tightly regulated can enter and leave cells when they shouldn’t. This dysregulation of normal cell function can cause parts of the body to work abnormally. A high enough dose can cause life-threatening impacts on the way that cells work.
Brockmeier is testing a new method for classifying chemicals as narcotics. Genes contain instructions that tell the body how to work, like how to make a protein. But not all genes are “expressed,” meaning not all instructions are followed all of the time. Your body will wait to produce instructions for making a particular protein, for example, until it needs more of that protein. If exposure to a narcotic causes predictable changes in the number of copies of instructions that are produced, then gene expression could be a new and faster way to classify a chemical as a narcotic or not.
There are nearly 100,000 chemicals currently in use around the world and close to 70,000 of those are potential narcotics. Brockmeier’s work on new chemical classification methods could eventually be incorporated into risk assessment procedures used by companies to ensure that the chemicals in their products are safe.
The best part about her work is that each day is different. She works on the computer and in the lab equally, which she says forces her to think about how she can get the best data possible from each stage of what she does. Brockmeier explains, “You have to focus on the scientific method itself, not just the lab work or the data analysis, so my job never feels boring or mundane.”
In her postdoc, Brockmeier has also found herself challenged to strike a balance between her institute’s academic interests and her funding agency’s industry interests. She describes her situation like this: “I find myself in the middle of a philosophical science discussion between two people who have completely different perspectives. This project has helped me learn how to reconcile different perspectives in order to work towards a solution that works for everyone.”
Now that she’s nearing the end of her postdoc, Brockmeier has been considering her next steps. After realizing that her true passion lies in science writing and communication, she’s been working towards a career in toxicology journalism or risk communication. She plans to use her experience as a mediator between industry,academia, and policy makers in order to connect toxicology research and the people whose lives it impacts, which, she says, “is all of us.”
You can find Brockmeier’s weekly writings on her professional development and science communication blog Science with Style. She also posts regularly as part of the Homo Scientificus Europaeus blog team.
Virginia Schutte (@vgwschutte)