Claire Fong

Investigating the Health Effects of 'Forever Chemicals'

Claire Fong ’23 conducts research on the possible toxic effects of PFAS and other “forever chemicals,” commonly used for decades in the production of plastics, cookware, and firefighting foam.

Claire Fong '23

Commonwealth Honors College

Newton, MA

What drew you to this field of study?

I’ve always had a passion for the biological sciences. My high school biology classes sparked my interest in what makes life life

When I arrived at UMass Amherst as a biology major and BioTAP Honors student, I had the opportunity to dive even deeper into the intricacies of life and explore the mechanisms that allow humans to function properly—and understand what happens when the mechanisms function improperly.  I wanted to engage even further with the Biology Department and expand my learning beyond the information offered in a textbook or lecture. I applied to work in the lab of Professor Rolf Karlstrom, and later to the RichCo Undergraduate Zebrafish Research Award, in hopes of conducting novel research on neurobiological mechanisms that biologists don’t quite understand yet. I was the first person to receive this scholarship from RichCo Labs, a biotech company, which is now awarded every year to one junior undergraduate  with the purpose of increasing student zebrafish research in universities. Now as a senior, I will train this year’s scholarship recipient so that he can continue my research after I graduate.

How do you conduct your research?

Using embryonic and larval transgenic zebrafish, I am working to elucidate the effects of PFAS (poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances) exposure on the developing nervous system, and the mechanisms through which PFAS may cause defects. I image the tissues of transgenic zebrafish dosed with PFAS or other compounds via fluorescence microscopy to determine the effects of PFAS on cell proliferation, nervous system development, and overall morphology. These assays are then quantified using ImageJ/Fiji analysis software.

What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?

Through my research, I hope to help develop methods and assays to assess the toxicity of chemicals to which humans are exposed daily. I hope that the data I produce will shed light on the importance of assessing substances like PFAS for human safety in considering their use in large-scale manufacturing.

I also hope to help other students build confidence in their abilities and learn to embrace their identities as scientists, just as I have. I’ve had the valuable opportunity to train new members entering the Karlstrom Lab and mentor the next RichCo Undergraduate Zebrafish Research Award recipient, who will continue my research after I graduate. Having learned that scientific advancements rely on collaboration and communication between scientists, my goal is to pass my knowledge on to other students and help them prepare to tackle scientific questions.

How does your faculty mentor support your research?

My faculty mentor, Professor Karlstrom, has provided me with unwavering support throughout my research. He and the current lab members taught me how to perform specialized procedures, maintain zebrafish, and assay various neurological processes. With their training and support, I quickly began conducting experiments more independently.

Professor Karlstrom was always there to help me plan experiments that maximize the information we can gain; troubleshoot issues that arise; and offer guidance for data analysis and interpretation. I am extremely grateful for the research skills I’ve learned from his lab members’ mentorship.

Engaging in research has allowed me to apply much of what I’ve learned in class in a real-world scientific setting where answers are not always straightforward; failure is an avenue for learning that brings you one step closer to a solution; and critical thinking and creativity hold utmost importance…

Claire Fong ‘23

What do you find most exciting about conducting research?

As advancements in biological research rely heavily upon collaboration and the sharing of ideas, I find sharing new data with my peers and other members of the zebrafish research community incredibly exciting. I am always eager to hear different interpretations of my data and how I could move forward. Not to mention, simply compiling data and formatting it to be presented is very exciting to me because it represents weeks or months of planning, experimentation, imaging, and data analysis.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the confidence I’ve developed in my academic and research abilities. When I joined the lab as a sophomore, I admired my more senior colleagues in the lab for their biology expertise and maturity, when I could not yet fully identify as a scientist myself.

Now a senior, I feel that I have grown as an individual and come a long way in my biology education. My time in the Karlstrom Lab has allowed me to take my understanding of biology to the next level as I conduct novel research and explore new avenues in biology. I am proud to have the ability to uncover valuable information that instills excitement and curiosity in my fellow researchers and principal investigators (PIs).

Most of all, I feel proud to now be in a position to share my specialized skills and knowledge with students who are new to the biology major or research, and help them embrace their identities as scientists.

How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?

Engaging in research has allowed me to apply much of what I’ve learned in class in a real-world scientific setting where answers are not always straightforward; failure is an avenue for learning that brings you one step closer to a solution; and critical thinking and creativity hold utmost importance, as previously established information always has the potential to be proven incorrect.

I’ve also had the opportunity to teach others research techniques, the intricacies behind my scientific question, and how to interpret data creatively. Teaching someone else takes my own learning to the next level. 

What are your plans for the future?

I plan on applying to medical schools this spring. While I haven’t yet decided on a specialty, I am interested in working with children, perhaps in allergy/immunology. Regardless, my past experience working at a hospital with patients of all ages from various walks of life has instilled in me a passion for healthcare.

Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?

I would absolutely recommend UMass to a friend. As a freshman, I was unsure of whether I would ever be able to feel at home at UMass; however, I can confidently say today that I’ve never felt a stronger sense of belonging anywhere. Living on campus in the Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community has connected me with people with whom I can try new things, explore the area, and step out of my comfort zone. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet some of my closest friends while collaborating on research projects and engaging in on-campus extracurriculars. While UMass is a large university with a diverse student population, there are lots of people on campus with whom I share my identity, interests, and aspirations. Having the privilege of meeting these people has made my time at UMass so much more memorable.

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