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Name: Vanessa Armstrong
Major: Senior double-majoring in Biology and Health Sciences (Pre-pharmacy)
Hometown: Bemidji, MN - currently live in Fisher, MN
Update: Vanessa is now a PhD candidate in Pharmacology, Physiology, and Therapeutics (PPT) at the University of North Dakota. Read her story!
I'm a nontraditional student at UMC pursuing a Biology degree and am planning to be among the first group of students to receive this degree in conjunction with a Pre-Pharmacy Health Sciences degree. I am receiving a significant amount of experience learning and using laboratory protocols for such projects as hormonal assays, genetics, and other molecular biology techniques. Because of these experiences, I have decided to focus my future work on pharmaceutical research and genomics, rather than concentrating on retail or hospital pharmacy.
I also play cello for our UMC quartet which plays for on campus events and campus sponsored community events during the school year. I don't think you're ever too old to learn something new. Through personal experience, I've learned a person can excel, even in something as difficult as the sciences, at any age as long as you have the determination to get it done.
Not only do I attend UMC, but so does my husband, and my son attended in the PSEO program his last two years of high school and has continued on here for his baccalaureate degree as well.
On Campus Involvement:
Cellist for the UMC quartet, Research assistant and UROP participant, SSS tutor, Part-time Teaching Assistant for some science courses.
1. What is the most interesting thing you've learned since being a student at UMC?
I have been learning a lot of genetic research skill and molecular biology skills, which for the most part are new at UMC. This will give the competitive skills I need to attend a graduate school using the latest science techniques.
2. What is your favorite activity on and off campus?
I love playing cello in our UMC quartet. I also love the activities at the Chester Fritz that I get to attend through the SSS program here on campus that I could not otherwise afford. I am a full time research assistant in the summer and I love the work.
3. What is your best memory from UMC thus far?
I have two, actually. My husband and my son also attend UMC, and we participated in the College Bowl competitions on campus and were able to move on in competitions with other colleges.
Also, I attended the National Conference of Undergraduate Research, which was a 5 day conference where I presented our research data and results for a poster session. It was held in Asheville, North Carolina and we were able to tour the Biltmore mansions among other fun and interesting activities.
4. What is the best reason to stay up until 2 AM?
The best reason is to celebrate doing well on your finals because you busted your rump for weeks trying to prepare!
5. What is the best thing about being a student at UMC?
The relationship between the faculty and the students. I have had the most caring mentors who always are there to write glowing recommendation letters, listen to my concerns, and help me develop a real plan for the future. My dreams are becoming reality because of their support. I have more than one mentor and we have constant contact. I'm not aware of any other public college where you can receive that kind of personal attention and support. I also like the students that attend here at the college. They tend to be from a diverse number of backgrounds and most everyone is friendly, down to earth, and have interesting backgrounds and experiences. I've made some great friendships here.
6. What is your advice to others?
Explore smaller colleges when looking for an alma mater. Many times smaller colleges can offer as many, if not more, opportunities than a larger college with a private school atmosphere.
So what, you might say, if someone is doing some research on microscopic, aquatic organisms known as rotifers.
Well, if you’ve swum in a body of water at some point in your life, you’ve probably swallowed some water accidentally at one point or another. If that’s the case, Dr. Brian Dingmann said, you’ve more than likely eaten some rotifers.
“If they like to swim in a lake or river, most people have come in more contact with rotifers than they’re aware,” he added. “They can be found in any standing body of water, from birdbaths, to puddles and lakes.”
Dingmann, who has a Ph.D. from Georgia Tech in applied biology, last spring finished his first year teaching microbiology and zoology at the University of Minnesota, Crookston (UMC). This summer, as part of the University of Minnesota’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), he’s researching rotifers alongside UMC student Vanessa Armstrong in a laboratory on campus. (Dingmann & Armstrong, photo above)
A prior research paper indicated that three chemicals released into the environment by humans stop sexual reproduction in rotifers. Dingmann’s research seeks to add more evidence to the prior paper by connecting the reproduction problem to either the female rotifer or the male. If the male is sterile, Dingmann explained, the focus can shift to morphology/shape changes after exposure to the chemicals that may affect male reproduction.
Simply put, the three chemicals being targeted by Dingmann and Armstrong’s research are finding their way into the water, and research is showing that they’re adversely affecting rotifer reproduction. The potential problem is magnified because rotifers dwell near the bottom of the food chain. If rotifers begin decreasing in numbers due to chemically induced reproduction difficulties, the impact will be felt far beyond organisms unseen to the naked eye.
“Fish feed on them, so the problem moves its way up the chain,” Dingmann explained. “That’s what’s so important to stress, because people might read about rotifer research and wonder why we’re doing this. It’s simple: Rotifers are food for fish. Eventually, down the road, if we’re affecting food for fish and affecting the fish population, you’re going to have a lot of upset people.”
The research is focusing on three chemicals used by humans in a variety of ways. The chemicals find their way to water through the leaching process, or are flushed directly into water.
“Waste treatment centers don’t take away any of our hormones; they only take our organics,” Dingmann explained. “Our hormones are flushed directly into lakes and streams, and they’re affecting rotifers.”
Recently, Dingmann and Armstrong conducted their first experiment to try to determine which rotifer, the male or female, is most affected by the chemicals. They then repeated the experiment. They were somewhat disappointed to see that early results were inconclusive.
Unlike a fish kill, with horrifying images of dead fish on a beach or floating on the water, rotifer damage is far less apparent, mostly due to their microscopic size. But even if people could see them with the naked eye, Dingmann said it’s not like there would be dead rotifers everywhere.
“This is a disruption of their hormone system; it’s sub-lethal damage. It’s changing their biology without killing them,” he explained. “A big thing in toxicology research is endocrine disruption. Everyone is trying to find chemical hormone disruption in any kind of animal, and when it comes to reproduction, rotifers are sentinels. They’re a standard model organism in toxicology research.”
Before they could do anything, Dingmann and Armstrong had to venture outside the laboratory to collect rotifers. Using a special net and digital camcorder on the Red Lake River, they were able to catch a bunch. Now, they have dormant eggs in the lab. Once placed in water, the eggs hatch. “A lot like sea monkeys,” Armstrong said.
The research tandem hopes their work leads to a better understanding of the endocrine system of an animal that has only 1,000 cells. The bigger goal of such research, however, is spreading the word. “You publish it, you present it, you make people aware of what’s going on,” Dingmann said. “And not only do I learn, another huge benefit is that Vanessa gets to be a part of it; it furthers her exposure and her education.”
He already knows that he’ll be presenting his findings at an international conference in Mexico in the spring of 2006.
Armstrong’s work with Dingmann is just one of seven UROP projects underway this summer at UMC. Other projects are focusing on science, technology, music, agronomy and other topics.
UROP participants like Armstrong first must write a project proposal. They can either do research on their own under the supervision of a faculty member, or, in Armstrong’s case with Dingmann, assist with research already underway. Once a proposal is approved at UMC, it advances to the Twin Cities U of M campus for approval. Each summer, at least a handful of UROP projects are undertaken at UMC.
Funding for a minimal wage and supplies is what makes a UROP project possible. Armstrong plans to write future UROP proposals to continue Dingmann’s rotifer research. When this summer’s work is completed, she will use the findings as the basis for a Website.
A mother as well as a student, Armstrong is a senior who’s studying pre-pharmacy. If all goes as planned, she’ll pursue a pharmacist degree at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.
“There’s a huge need in the field,” she said.
In addition to her UROP work, Armstrong is, “on the side,” assisting Pam Elf, who teaches along with Dingmann in UMC’s biology program, with her research. Elf is testing hormones in various reptiles.
“There are research opportunities at UMC that people don’t know about,” Armstrong said. “It’s not just one project, one facet or one result; it’s ongoing and it’s growing, with more opportunities in the future.”
“This is very outward,” Dingmann said. “Research here is going places.”