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Summer Science Series: Team 'Neurotox' Tackles Parkinson's

Introducing the Summer Science Series: As part of the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) and other summer endeavors, students are collaborating with faculty advisors on high-level scientific studies—the kind usually reserved for graduate students. What discoveries are they making? Read the first installment in the series and watch for more URSI stories on the Hub.

Squinting through the lenses of a laser-scanning microscope for hours at a time can be grueling, and often frustrating, work.  But the discoveries Eunice Chou ’14 made in a Vassar research lab this year may well lead to breakthroughs in finding the causes of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders.

“I remember the day I said to myself, ‘I think I’ve really got something here,’” the Queens, NY native recalled as she took a break from her lab work in Olmsted Hall.  “You don’t really expect a breakthrough when you’re doing original research after so many days without results. This was a long journey but a happy one.”

After months of painstaking work, Chou detected marked changes in dopamine neurons in tiny worms called nematodes that were exposed to a common fungicide.  The discovery was significant because nematodes share many genetic traits with humans, dopamine is a major neurotransmitter in the human brain, and people with Parkinson’s disease often show marked degeneration of dopamine neurons.

The project began last fall when neuroscience and behavior professors Kate Susman and Janet Gray enlisted Chou and Harrison Brody ’12 to analyze the effects of a fungicide called Mancozeb, which contains high levels of zinc and manganese. Susman said other research has shown agricultural workers who use such lawn and garden chemicals run a higher-than-normal risk of Parkinson’s and similar disorders.

The “Neurotox Team” had healthy nematodes slither through the Mancozeb for a day, and then observed them as they moved from swimming in a drop of water to crawling on a flat surface. This test mimics how a nematode would move through moist soil, its usual habitat. Those exposed to the fungicide had difficulty making the necessary changes in how they moved—a sign that their neurological pathways were being obstructed.

Chou then placed the nematodes under the microscope to observe their dopamine neurons. The evidence was striking: nematodes that had trouble navigating through the water after being exposed to the chemical had damaged dopamine neurons.

Like all scientific experiments, this one had to be repeated numerous times before Chou was convinced of the findings. But now that the results have been confirmed, she and the Neurotox Team are ready to write a paper on their findings, which will be submitted to a scientific journal for publication.

Chou said she is looking forward to that phase of the project. Since coming to Vassar, she’s decided to pursue a career in medicine and neuroscience, but had, at one time, aspired to becoming a journalist. “A lot of science writing is so dry and bland,” she said. “I’m looking forward to getting started on the writing because it’s something I really like to do.”

Susman said she and Chou had shared the “pure joy” of celebrating a scientific discovery. “That knowledge that ‘I know something about the world that is new’ is quite a feeling,” Susman said.  

Gray said it was gratifying to share in the success of the project.

“It’s always exciting to see students be excited with the work they’re doing in the lab,” she said. “You work and you struggle, and then all of a sudden light bulbs flash. This was one of those light-bulb-flashing moments.”

—Larry Hertz

Photos © Vassar College/Buck Lewis