Students engage in groundbreaking research on herbicide chemical

December 03, 2019

Students perform research at Detroit Mercy.Detroit Mercy undergraduate students have plenty of opportunities for research in just about any area of study. Students working in the lab of Rachelle Belanger, associate professor of biology, are engaged in groundbreaking work studying the effects of atrazine on crayfish—research that could lead to drastic changes in the use of the common herbicide in the United States.

“We rely heavily on undergraduate students to work in our laboratories to help answer important scientific questions,” Belanger said. “Being involved in authentic laboratory research, undergraduates gain transferable skills to many different professions.” Most recently, her group of undergraduate researchers completed the written portion of a publication that will appear in Chemosphere 2020, an international journal focusing on environmental science and engineering.

Belanger said the work was the first to show that exposure to atrazine, a commonly used herbicide, causes DNA damage in neurons and lead to other issues, like cancer.

“This is significant because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows 3 parts-per-billion of atrazine in drinking water and 10 parts-per-billion in streams and rivers, where important aquatic organisms live,” Belanger explained. “We found DNA damage in neurons at 10 parts-per-billion. Concentrations above 10 parts-per-billion are routinely encountered in streams and rivers in agricultural areas.”

While the European Union has banned the use of atrazine, the United States still regularly uses the chemical. The EPA is set to review the effects of atrazine again in 2020 and Belanger hopes her research will help the United States ban atrazine as well. However, she said the work couldn’t be done without her undergraduate researchers and the students say the experience in the lab is invaluable.

“At a larger university, they aren’t going to get an experience like this because it is mostly graduate students doing the work,” she said.

Students can get involved in Belanger’s lab as early as their freshman year. They apply and complete an interview process before being assigned to a lab. Students can remain in Belanger’s lab throughout their years at Detroit Mercy, mentoring younger students.

Becoming Part of the Lab

“I went online and looked at the research being done by the professors and the one that really stood out to me was Dr. Belanger’s,” said Mohammad Hadeed. “It was something that I had learned in classes. It was something that I could explain to people and I thought was interesting,” he added.

Belanger said Hadeed was persistent in becoming involved in her lab and worked to become one of her seven current mentees.

Becoming a researcher in Belanger’s lab isn’t easy. Students have to read previously published articles from the lab on the topic and take a quiz. She also makes sure she has space to allow her to spend quality one-on-one time with each student.

Most of the students who come to Belanger are biology majors and while most are in pre-health areas, others are looking to go on to research work in the future. 

Bringing Science to Life

“I enjoy that we do things that we typically wouldn’t do in a classroom,” said student Tehreem Iqbal. “It’s very hands-on and I really like hands-on work. For me, it’s the most effective way to learn. I feel that I learn much more about the animal that we are looking at, rather than just reading about it in a textbook.”

Abdrhman Almouseli said that while most of what the students learn in the classroom is theory-based, they put it to work in the lab.

“You need that knowledge because it’s actually foundation to being able to know what is happening on the micro level,” Almouseli said. “When we go to class, we learn about systems, we learn how systems interact. And when we come here, we know how systems react so now we need to figure out real-life applications on those systems and manipulate them and see how they change,” he explained.

Sara Abdulelah began working in Belanger’s lab during the fall of her freshman year, when she didn’t have a lot of experience. She said when she started, she didn’t know much of the histology aspect of the research, but she learned in it the lab and is now seeing it in many of her higher-level biology classes.

“It’s nice to have that prior knowledge because it actually makes me a better student,” she said.

The students also learn and teach each other in the lab. As a new mentee, Hadeed said he has to learn a lot of the things they do in the lab on the spot, but his fellow labmates are helpful.

“They will take the time, even if I make a mistake, to tell me how to fix something or specific details—like taking pictures on this amazing microscope that I’ve never seen before,” Hadeed said. “It’s a new experience and it’s really cool to learn.”

Iqbal said she likes to see others do something before she does it instead of just having something explained to her and then having to work through it on her own. Being in the lab gives her the chance to learn in a way that is meaningful and helpful to her.

Growing as Scientist

Students presenting their research at a conference“In the work we are doing in the lab, I’m learning lots of skillsets that will be helpful for things I will be doing in my profession, so that’s really beneficial,” said Karen Crile.

For Abdulelah, who wants to go into dentistry, everything she picks up in the lab is helpful, even down to the detailed handwork she is learning as she goes.

Vanessa Manzo wants to focus on neuroscience in the future. Working with Belanger gives her exposure to the field and Belanger’s experience to learn from.

“It opens your eyes,” Manzo said. “You get to have more perspective on what is out there. If you don’t get exposed to the research aspect as much in high school, just coming here you are exposed to so many different areas that you can focus on.” She said it broadens the student’s horizon so they can figure out where they want to get involved.

Students are required to spend three to five hours in the lab per week, but Belanger said many spend more time than that working on projects in the lab. She said that because the students are undergraduates, there is a lot of interaction between her and them. The skills they learn in the lab are transferable to their graduate years and beyond.

“You can see the confidence and the way they grow in the lab as the time goes on,” said Belanger. It isn’t just in the lab work where Belanger sees her students grow. She also sees their development as presenters of their work. Her students present at two conferences a year at the university and they also present off campus at state and national conferences, where they have won awards for their work.

Belanger said her students are always pushing forward, looking at literature, applying for grants, formulating hypotheses, developing tests and honing presentation skills.

“Answering one research question leads to five more,” said Belanger.

Making a lasting Impact

“It’s really cool talking to other people about the research we do,” Crile said. “Whenever we explain it to them, they are kind of shocked and they act as if they don’t know this is happening.”

Hadeed, who calls herself an animal-lover, said viewing the impact of atrazine on the crayfish hit home. He wanted to make sure that those using atrazine could see the impact of such a powerful chemical—something they don’t always realize.

“I would like to show the world what is actually happening,” Hadeed said.

Aside from what they are proving in the lab, Belanger said the students are picking up skills that will make a difference in a variety of areas in the future. She said a former lab student told her he is using skills learned in her lab in dental research.

Belanger also said the research opportunities at Detroit Mercy opens up the world to undergraduate researchers. Students receive hands-on research opportunities with one-on-one time with their mentors—something they couldn’t get at larger universities, where they are competing for research roles with graduate students.

“They all learn these transferable skills. Plus, it helps develop critical thinking. When you get a dataset and you are looking at it and trying to analyze the data or interpret it, these guys are really developing critical thinking skills that they are not going to get in a traditional classroom,” Belanger said.