JANUARY STUDENT FEATURE: LIZ JOHNSON

This week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Liz Johnson, a PhD candidate in Dr. Earley’s lab. Liz has been conducting research in Dr. Earley’s lab for some time now and has published several manuscripts. She was able to offer me some really interesting insight into what she studies as well as something that is integral to the research world: the publication process.

Liz, what initially got you interested in research? 

Honestly, I didn’t really know a lot about undergraduate research until my junior year in college. At the time, I was a chemistry major and I thought I wanted to go to medical school. Well, junior year started and I soon realized I really did not like chemistry all that much and definitely not enough to have it as my major. I had always liked biology. I had taken several biology courses along with chemistry courses during my freshman and sophomore years because they were required for the premedical program. Because I already had a solid foundation in the subject, I decided to switch my major. During the second semester of my junior year I enrolled in Dr. Philip Harris’ Vertebrate Zoology class. The class was really small so we all got to know Dr. Harris pretty well. He learned about my decision to go to medical school and asked me why I wanted to be a doctor. I didn’t really have a reason other than I wanted to help people and that I liked science. Dr. Harris asked me why I had not considered going to graduate school to study biology. Honestly, I had never thought about it! I did not know much about graduate school because my plan had always been to go to medical school. Dr. Harris asked me if I wanted to spend the following summer doing research in his lab to see if it was something I would be interested in. His lab uses molecular techniques like DNA extraction and PCR to understand the evolutionary relationships among fish species. I fell in love with research and the process of scientific inquiry. It was at this point I decided that medical school was not for me. After a summer in Dr. Harris’ lab, I found myself asking him questions about the importance of understanding evolutionary relationships and what may lead to the divergence of species. Animal behavior came up in conversation, which led to even more questions about why fish species differ in behavior. Because Dr. Harris’ lab does not deal with behavioral sciences, he suggested that I check out Dr. Earley’s animal behavior lab on campus. The following semester (now my senior year!) I met with Dr. Earley and became part of his lab where I have been ever since.

Wow, what a story! I’m glad you found the right path for yourself though. What type of research are you currently involved in and how long have you been involved in research?

 I have been studying mangrove rivulus for a long time. Technically, I have been involved in research since the senior year of my undergraduate but the focus of that research was very different from the research that I do now. As an undergraduate, I mainly helped graduate students with their own projects, but I also conducted my own senior research project establishing a photographic developmental time series of rivulus embryos from fertilization to hatching. In graduate school I became interested in endocrine disrupting compounds, which are metals, pesticides/herbicides, pollutants and pharmaceuticals that interfere with the hormone system in humans and animals. I wanted to understand how these chemicals affect the physiology, reproduction and behavior of the mangrove rivulus. Currently, I am trying to figure out whether the route of exposure to various endocrine compounds can differentially affect how the fish function. The fish can be exposed to these compounds either through bioconcentration or biomagnification. Bioconcentration simply means that the fish is exposed to the compound when water that contains it passes over their gills. In this route, the compound enters directly into their bloodstream. The second way that these fish can encounter endocrine disrupting compounds is through biomagnification, in which they eat something that is contaminated with a particular compound. These two routes distribute the compounds across the body differently, potentially resulting in different levels of exposure. I want to isolate these routes in order to determine how they result in phenotypic differences.

I think that the research I am doing is not only important for the fish I study, but also applicable to many different organisms in environments exposed to similar contaminants. We all know that factories and wastewater treatment plants are dumping hundreds of different compounds into our waterways and, although we know these compounds aren’t directly killing aquatic animals like fish, we do not know exactly how they are affecting them. The way in which these fish are exposed and how they respond is important to understand because it can provide the framework in which to make predictions about how the population as a whole might respond to exposure, and potentially inform us of issues that could lead to serious declines in both the health and abundance of the population. This is at the heart of my studies, which all have real world applications because the concentrations of compounds that I use are ecologically relevant and found in the fish’s natural environment.

 I know that some of your research has been published. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your publications? What was that research about?

 I have focused primarily on endocrine disrupting compounds during my graduate career. The first experiment that I ever did, and that was published, involved twenty fish. First, I collected samples of the fish’s hormones levels before starting the experiment. Then I exposed them to ethinylestradiol, which is a synthetic form of the female estrogen hormone estradiol, for thirty days. The reason I did this was to see if the fish had any physiological response to exposure. After thirty days I collected their hormones once again. I compared the hormones I collected before running the experiment to those that I had obtained after thirty days of exposure and I found that two major sex hormones in the fish, estradiol and 11-ketotestosterone (a fish androgen similar to human testosterone) were affected. In both the hermaphrodites and males I found that estradiol levels significantly decreased after exposure. In addition, males had a decrease in their levels of 11-ketotestosterone. These hormones are critical in regulating sexual characteristics as well as the behavior of the fish, so changes in hormones can result in changes in other phenotypic endpoints.

 For our readers that are unfamiliar with publications, could you tell us a little bit about that process? How long did it take you take have a paper published?

 Sure! When you publish a manuscript the first thing you must decide is which journal you want to submit it to. Trust me, there are a lot of options. Then you have to read all the nitty-gritty details on the exact way that they want the work formatted. For example, the journal that I submitted to required that I use British English. Once your manuscript is ready to go, the next step is sending it off. And then you wait. They usually get back to you pretty quickly saying either, “okay, we reject this,” or “we are sending it off to be reviewed.” In the second case, they reach out to relevant professors or people who have experience with your particular area of research and ask them if they would be willing to read your manuscript and provide feedback. This process can go back and forth (and back and forth) for a while.

For me, the entire process took a little over a year. We had some hurdles that we had to overcome related to the journal switching editors so, anticipate that the process might take a bit longer than expected!

 Is research your long-term goal career goal or do you have something else planned for the future?

I definitely think I would like to stay in research. However, whether I want to do research in an academic sense or a nonacademic sense has yet to be determined.

What is the most challenging aspect of research for you? 

For me, the most challenging part of research is data analysis and interpretation. Often times the data we collect is not straightforward and requires the knowledge of appropriate statistical techniques to figure out whether or not our hypotheses are supported or rejected. However, I think both null (statistically non-significant) and significant results are equally important in understanding the outcome of an experiment.

 What do you enjoy the most about research?

I really love how there is always a problem to be addressed and a question to be asked. It’s a very dynamic career, which makes it hard to get bored. It’s interesting because there is no linear goal to be reached since science is always changing. It keeps me on my toes. I have a lot to learn, and I like that. I get to be a student for a long time.

So, now we know that you love research and we know why you love research but we don’t know much else. What do you enjoy doing with your time outside of the lab?

I am a big outdoors enthusiast. Hiking, camping, kayaking, you name it. I have two dogs and my husband and I love taking them on adventures. Spending time outdoors is really important to me since I spend the majority of my time during the week inside the lab.

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