Isabella Boyack

Uncovering the Impacts of ‘Forever Chemicals’ on Health

At UMass Amherst, Isabella Boyack ’23 studies the effects of PFAS chemicals on the development of the exocrine pancreas, which is crucial for a healthy metabolism.

Isabella Boyack ’23  

Veterinary and Animal Sciences
Commonwealth Honors College

Westminster, Massachusetts

What drew you to this field of study?

I have always been extremely interested in the natural sciences and drawn to developmental biology, in particular. I was excited to start research and began looking for opportunities at the end of my first semester of freshman year at UMass Amherst. I was interested to learn more about the work being done in Professor of Environmental Health Sciences Alicia Timme-Laragy's lab on the effects of toxicant exposure on embryonic development and lifelong health. In this day and age when toxicant exposures are impossible to avoid, I think this is an extremely relevant and important field of study.  

How do you conduct your research?  

My research investigates the effects of poly- and perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS)—known as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the environment—on the development of the exocrine pancreas. Several studies have linked PFAS exposure to adverse health effects in humans, including an association between PFAS exposure and increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, and the pancreas seems to be one of the targets of these compounds. In my research, I study zebrafish, which are a good model for understanding human pancreatic development because they have similar final structures, and the function of the pancreas is conserved across species.  

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

Environmental exposure has become a place of inquiry when it comes to predisposition to conditions such as metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Understanding how these compounds affect the development of organs crucial for healthy metabolism, like the pancreas, gives a deeper understanding of the risks these compounds pose to human health. It also can be used to dive deeper into the mechanisms that are being disrupted by these compounds. Toxicology research can also inform policymaking relative to the regulation of chemicals shown to have toxic effects. My research offers an early look at how these compounds affect the exocrine pancreas, but I hope the work continues and can lead to changes that protect humans and the environment from these harmful chemicals.

I find it thrilling to be a part of a team and field making new and important discoveries that can hopefully lead to positive change.

Isabella Boyack ‘23

How does your faculty mentor support your research?

Professor Timme-Laragy has been incredibly supportive and has mentored me throughout most of my undergraduate career. She is an incredible PI who builds a strong community within the lab. Past and present members stay in touch and deeply enjoy the atmosphere she has fostered. Professor Timme-Laragy also has been instrumental in my growth as a student and a researcher. She has and continues to offer amazing advice and guidance, not only on my project, but also regarding my future plans and career aspirations.

What do you find most exciting about conducting research?

Research has allowed me to dive deeper into a topic I am very interested in, but is not often focused on in my classes. Toxicology is a complex and important field that I knew very little about before starting research at UMass. Through this experience, I have gained knowledge that I don’t think could be taught in a classroom. I find it thrilling to be a part of a team and field making new and important discoveries that can hopefully lead to positive change.

What are you most proud of?

I recently attended and presented a poster at the Society of Toxicology annual conference in Nashville. I am incredibly proud that my project could be shared with so many professionals in the field. I am also proud that I have gained the confidence to present my work on numerous occasions and represent the Timme-Laragy lab. When I started in this lab my freshman year, I never imagined how far I would come and how much my passion would grow for research, especially within the field of toxicology.

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

Conducting research at UMass has been the most beneficial experience of my undergraduate education. It has taught me so many technical skills, but has also built my confidence and has informed my future plans and career aspirations. I have enjoyed taking multiple independent studies and staying to work over the breaks. I have had the chance to work with an amazing team, whom I will continue to turn to beyond my education at UMass. The network I have built and the experiences I have gained have been incredibly beneficial and I couldn’t have wished for a better group of people to be surrounded by during my four years at UMass.

What are your plans for the future?

I will attend veterinary school next year and hope to pursue a PhD afterward in order to study toxicology with a "One Health" approach—understanding how these compounds affect human, animal, and environmental health and the interconnections between them. I am very interested in wildlife medicine and conservation and hope to pursue that in vet school. Eventually, I hope to connect my veterinary passions with my passion for toxicology. I would love to study toxicology in wildlife, specifically looking at aquatic species.

Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?

UMass has so many opportunities to explore your interests and get involved beyond the classroom. There are so many amazing people to meet and connect with. I have had an incredible experience here and feel prepared to take the next step in my educational career. The community here is so supportive, and the faculty and students are extremely passionate about what they do.

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