Worm research earns honors
When Jake Adcock first began a research project in his toxicology class on the effects of a certain insecticide on a tiny worm found in healthy soil, he and his lab partner never thought they’d get the hang of transferring the little creatures onto a microscope slide.
“The first time it took us four hours to transfer five worms onto our slides,” says Jake, a junior biology/biochemistry major from Auburn. “We finally were able to transfer 15 worms in 20 minutes. At first we’d accidentally slice their heads off or stab them.”
He and his lab partner, junior biology major Robby Williams of Cumming, have come a long way since that first day they decimated the worms, which measure about 1 millimeter long. Toxicology professor Dr. Melinda Pomeroy-Black was so impressed by their research, titled “Acute Neurotoxic Effects of Malathion on the Soil Nematode C. elegans,” that she encouraged them to submit their work to the Society of Toxicology so they could present it at the organization’s international conference this past March in San Francisco, Calif.
To their surprise, the Society of Toxicology invited them to present their findings at the conference. More than 8,000 scientists, as well as post-doctoral and graduate students, attended the international meeting.
Like Jake and Robby, about 50 undergraduate students attended the educational offerings the first two days of the conference. But out of those students, Jake and Robby were the only undergraduates invited to present their findings during the final days of the event.
He says the two were a little intimidated to present their findings to professional scientists and post-doctoral students on how malathion, an organophosphate insecticide, affected the nervous systems of the C. elegans worm, a nematode found in high numbers in healthy soil. Their research showed that while the insecticide was destroying unwanted insects, it also killed the C. elegans, which are needed for healthy soil.
“We were a little nervous to present, but everyone who came up to us asked encouraging questions,” Jake says. “While some asked us where we went to school, others would ask us more questions because they said they had the facilities in their own lab to take back what they learned from us and then research our topic on an even more advanced level. It was rewarding to see so many people excited about it. They also said they were really encouraged to see undergrads presenting, which is something they don’t see very often.”
Both Jake and Robby applied for and received funding through LaGrange College’s Undergraduate Research program to pay for the conference, lodging and meals. Dr. Pomeroy-Black attended the conference with them. At Honors Day at the end of April, the two received LaGrange College’s only Undergraduate Research Award in the Science and Math Division.
Dr. Pomeroy-Black’s toxicology class has inspired both Jake and Robby to pursue doctoral degrees in toxicology, which is the study of the harmful effects of chemicals as they travel through the body. It was because of the conference that Jake was able to make a solid decision as to what field of toxicology he wants to pursue.
“I knew I wanted to go into toxicology because it’s what I love, but I didn’t have any idea what I could do with it,” he says. “Before the conference I only knew the academia side or the government side or working with the EPA or the CDC.
“But in San Francisco I met a guy at the conference who called himself a ‘toxicologist for hire.’ He works for a contract resource organization, or a CRO. So for instance, a drug development company might want to develop a certain type of drug, so they’ll contact a CRO who’ll send over a team of scientists to run experiments and help them develop the drug. Or an environmental firm might need toxicologists to analyze contaminants in the water or the environment. So when I found out about the CROs, that’s when it really clicked and when I really started getting excited about toxicology.”