UMass Amherst Students Learning to Think Like Scientists by Researching Steroids

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts biology professor Sandra L. Petersen wanted her endocrinology students to think like scientists, so she has assigned them to act like scientists. Six undergraduates and two graduate students spent the fall semester researching steroids. Specifically, they studied the pros and cons of estrogen replacement therapy, and the male hormones called androgens.

Steroids, Petersen explains, are critically important hormones produced in the body, in both men and women. While steroids are responsible for puberty, they also have a role in growth, behaviors,and brain development.

The students who studied hormone replacement therapy researched the benefits and risks of estrogen therapy in regard to Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, osteoporosis (a bone weakening disorder which can affect women after menopause), and breast cancer. Estrogen is actually a steroid, Petersen says, and is sometimes prescribed by physicians hoping to ease uncomfortable symptoms in menopause. Students researching androgens studied topics such as anabolic steroids, which are sometimes used illicitly among young athletes; dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a popular over-the-counter dietary supplement which some hail as a "fountain of youth" for men; and environmental pollutants that disrupt androgen action.

Before launching the students on their research projects, Petersen gave them a foundation in steroids: how they’re synthesized, how they work, and how chemicals in the environment can get into the body and mimic steroids, particularly estrogen. Students then studied estrogen and androgens as "exogenous" hormones – those that are ingested, rather than produced by the body. The class also discussed how to interpret medical statistics and determine "what they really tell us," Petersen said.

While ensuring that students mastered the subject matter was one of Petersen’s aims, another primary goal was helping students to "transform from thinking of themselves as students, to thinking of themselves as trained scientists who can find their own information,and can develop confidence in themselves and their abilities." Students also reviewed the medical literature on their topics, critically evaluated it, and then interviewed the studies’ authors, as well as other experts in the field. In other words, Petersen says, they were active researchers rather than passive note-takers. And, she says, they overcame their initial intimidation in dealing with the respected scientists who could someday be their colleagues.

"I wanted the students to learn that these authorities are people, and that they’re approachable. They’re not just names on papers," said Petersen.

"Dr. Petersen really encouraged us to learn on our own, and to pick a topic we wanted to know everything about," says Leah Lariccia, a senior biology major from Medway. Lariccia studied the safety of DHEA, and determined that the results are currently inconclusive "At first I was skeptical; it was a little scary. But teaching yourself about something that you’re fascinated by is the best way to learn. It’s really exciting."

The results of some of the projects were surprising, Petersen said. For instance, one student’s research indicated that estrogen levels during hormone replacement therapy may be insufficient in guarding against osteoporosis, if the medication is taken incorrectly.

Students will report on their findings at an end-of-semester presentation, much as professional scientists present research results to their peers. "The students did so well in their research, I wanted them to share the information with the public, and not just with each other," Petersen said.

Petersen began her career as a registered nurse, receiving her bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University. She then earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in neuroendocrinology and endocrinology at Oregon State University, and taught at the medical schools of the University of Missouri and the University of Maryland before joining the UMass faculty in 1994. Her recent research focuses on how estrogen and progesterone regulate different genes in the brain, and how environmental toxins, such as dioxins and PCBs, may affect hormone function in the brain.