By Kati Moore, MEM’16

Not many graduate students can get the best of both worlds: quiet, methodical bench work in the lab and unpredictable, exciting field work in the tropics. Lauren Wyatt, a third-year PhD student at the Nicholas School studying under Bill Pan and Joel Meyer in the Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program (ITEHP), has struck this balance.

Her research focuses on better understanding the effects of mercury exposure on human health. When not in lab, she conducts field work in small Peruvian communities affected by mining that uses mercury to extract gold.

“They use mercury because it binds well to gold, which aids in extraction since the mercury can be evaporated, leaving the gold behind,” Wyatt explains. This contaminates the air and may have negative effects on the people that breathe it and on the surrounding environment, as it can enter waterways and the food chain.

Though the effects of mercury poisoning on the nervous system are well understood, not much is known about the long-term effects of mercury in small doses, particularly on such functions as immune response. “Mercury’s impact on the immune system is complex, which is why it needs to be investigated further,” Wyatt says.

Wyatt’s work combines two very different fields: public health and molecular biology.

“That’s an unusual combination,” her co-advisor Meyer says. “I think it’s a great example of what ITEHP and the Nicholas School in general are trying to do, which is train people in interdisciplinary approaches.” ITEHP is a pre-doctoral training program that prepares students for research careers in environmental health.

This means that while she spends a lot of time in the lab, she also is on the ground working directly with people in sometimes challenging field conditions.

“Every day is beautiful but it’s also really stressful. You may have random weather events that throw you off schedule or strand you. It creates interesting stories,” she says.

She has spent two field seasons with Pan and a Bass Connections Team in the Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru, which borders Brazil and Bolivia. The researchers work with a team of local medical practitioners to collect blood and other human samples from residents in communities influenced by mining. (Bass Connections is a Duke-wide initiative that links students and faculty with complex challenges.)

Wyatt works specifically with young children. She’s interested in assessing the impacts of mercury exposure on child immune responses by measuring concentrations of routine vaccination antibodies and cytokines, which are important in immune cell signaling, in blood serum. “If an effect is present we think that it would be noticeable in younger children as their immune systems are not fully developed yet,” she adds.

The Pan lab recently traveled to Peru again to collect samples that will be analyzed by Peruvian and U.S. collaborators and at Duke, where Wyatt has been working with Meyer to test for DNA damage and changes in DNA damage repair following mercury exposure in Caenorhabditis elegans, a microscopic nematode model organism for genetic research.

C. elegans is widely used in genetic labs because it shares a high percentage of genes with humans. It is also a convenient model because of its three-day life cycle, which allows experiments to be repeated quickly and easily. For Wyatt, this was quite a different lab experience from her Master’s research on fish and aquaculture at the University of New Hampshire.

“Fish are awesome. I love fish. But fish are needy. Someone’s going to have to come in on every holiday and feed them.”

Whereas a population of fish might require an entire building to house them and people to feed them every day, C. elegans are so small that they can be kept in stacked petri dishes in the lab incubators.

“It’s almost been a relief ... If something goes wrong I’ll just try again,” she says.

Though Wyatt’s background is in zoology and marine science, she says she enjoys working on an issue that directly affects human health.

“We’re exposed to a lot of things like mercury that exist naturally in the environment, and how they impact different aspects of our health is really important to understand,” she says.

Meyer put it this way: “Lauren really wants to do work that’s useful and helps people. And I think the project she’s doing gives her a really great opportunity to do that.”

Wyatt learned about Pan’s work with mercury toxicity by doing one of her first-year rotations in his lab.

“I never would have thought to go this direction,” she says. “But doing rotations allows you to see that there are other options and there aren’t penalties for saying, ‘Well, now I’m going to do something completely different.’”

Outside of her research, Wyatt also plays intramural sports with the Nicholas School teams, and recently joined the Triangle ultimate frisbee league.

“I like to stay active, since you can’t just sit around or stand in lab all day,” she says.

In between lab work, field work, and sports, she also makes yogurt, which is easier than it sounds, she says. She found recipes online and decided to try it herself. “It’s fun when I have time to do that,” she says.

As for life after grad school, Wyatt says while academia, government, and industry all have attractive benefits, right now she’s leaning toward pursuing a career with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“They’re involved in a number of environmental exposure issues, and to be able to do research on such a large scale would be really cool,” she says.

No matter where Wyatt’s career path takes her, her range of experience and passion for protecting human health is sure to serve her well.

Kati Moore MEM’16 is the 2014–15 student communications assistant for the Nicholas School’s Office of Marketing and Communications.