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An Unexpected Direction

A biology major finds new avenues to explore through environmental research


Jasmine Thompson with her killifish in Richard Di Giulio's lab. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography

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A flyer posted in the Bryan Center led pre-med biology major Jasmine Thompson in an unexpected direction — one that rekindled her interest in environmental science and gave her a chance to work side-by-side during the summer with investigators at a leading environmental research programs.

The flyer promoted a research experience in the laboratory of Nicholas School of the Environment Professor Richard Di Giulio. Thompson and three other Duke undergrads spent the summer of 2014 at the Duke Superfund Center, learning environmental research techniques, assisting with studies, attending talks by toxicology faculty, and learning about the range of research to clean up the nation’s most dangerous hazardous waste sites.

The Duke Superfund Center’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, supported the internships.

Thompson explored how exposure to toxic chemicals at these Superfund sites affects local fish species. Under the mentorship of Di Giulio and graduate student Daniel Brown, she studied the Atlantic killifish, a species of minnow that has adapted to and continues to live in a contaminated river near a Superfund site in southeastern Virginia.

Thompson is advancing the Di Giulio lab’s work to understand the environmental impacts of a former wood treatment facility that, for decades, discharged creosote and other chemicals into the nearby river. Over the summer, she used technology to evaluate how swimming performance in adult killifish is affected by early embryonic exposure to contaminated water from the site.

“The most eye-opening thing for me was seeing not only how we as humans affect the killifish we share an environment with, but how well the killifish respond by adapting and evolving,” Thompson says. “It really highlighted how important our interactions with the environment are and what other organisms are capable of.”

Now a senior at Duke, Thompson is continuing this research as an independent study project. She is examining cardiovascular gene expression and enzyme activities in killifish embryos and adults to better understand the differences in how adapted and non-adapted killifish react to exposure to Superfund site contaminants.

“Over the summer I learned a lot of basic research techniques; now I’m more heavily involved in data collection and genetic testing,” Thompson said. “It’s interesting to see the data fall in place, and to see how the fish react to the different conditions we expose them to.”

This research could lead to better regulations on the levels of these toxic chemicals that are released into the environment, Thompson says. “Knowing that these chemicals have significant negative effects on killifish, and possibly other organisms, can be used to make a case that their production and disposal should be closely monitored, if they can’t be avoided altogether."

jasmine thompson

Jasmine Thompson handles samples with graduate student Daniel Brown. Photo by Les Todd

“One of the great things about Duke is the opportunity for students from different majors to explore a wide range of research interests,” Di Giulio said. “This undergraduate research experience has really helped her mature as a researcher and shape her post-graduate education and career goals. She has been a remarkable addition to our laboratory, and she’s undoubtedly got a great future in science and/or medicine.”

Thompson, who hails from Martinsville, Va., still plans to go to medical school, but her experience in the Nicholas School lab has led her to look for opportunities to spend a gap year delving into laboratory-based research.

“I would like to do something environmental,” she says. “I know that environmental research isn’t necessarily the first thing you think of when you think of med school, but I like it, and if I can find a lab that combines my interests I’d be excited.”

For now, Thompson is balancing her work in the Nicholas School lab with her other pre-med classes. She finds time to serve as a student manager for the Duke women’s basketball team. (Despite growing up as a UNC fan, she’s now diehard Duke and has converted her family, she said.)

Thompson also participates in several pre-med and volunteer organizations, including one that aims to get young girls involved in math, engineering and science. In other words, to follow right in her footsteps