In December of 2019, four Honors students received the Pfizer Award from the Society of Toxicology (SOT) recognizing their outstanding research achievements in the field. The UMass Environmental Health Sciences Department consists of only eight faculty members, yet four out of the twenty-one undergraduate students chosen from a global pool of scholars are from UMass Amherst, making this a truly remarkable achievement. Furthermore, each student is a member of the Commonwealth Honors College.
In March, the four recipients will be attending the Society of Toxicology’s annual conference in Anaheim, California where they will have the opportunity to present their honors thesis research. The conference brings together 7,000-8,000 participants each year, making it the largest toxicological forum in the world. The four UMass award recipients are Emily Severance, Joseph McGaunn, Christopher Clark, and Menna Teffera.
Emily Severance is a senior undergraduate student from Chelmsford who is double majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology and psychology. Emily is conducting independent research in Alicia Timme-Laragy’s laboratory at UMass Amherst. At the conference, Emily will be presenting a poster describing her research on Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid.
Also known an PFOS, this compound is a persistent environmental toxin that has typically been used in firefighting foams and flame-retardant consumer products. Emily’s research “investigates how PFOS interacts with the Nrf2 antioxidant response pathway and the underlying mechanism behind PFOS induced oxidative stress.” The phenomenon of oxidative stress results from an imbalance in the body’s free radicals and antioxidants, and it plays a role in the aging process as well as inducing a variety of lifestyle-related diseases.
The Pfizer Award will allow Emily and her peers to attend the SOT conference where she will present her research in a professional setting for the first time. “It will also allow me to meet professionals in the toxicology field. It is an incredible opportunity and I am very thankful for this award,” Emily explains.
Christopher Clark is from Westfield and is also a member of Timme-Laragy’s lab, and he is pursuing a double major in environmental science and STEM German. Chris joined the Timme-Laragy Lab in his freshman year after gaining support from the Research Experience for Undergraduates sponsored by STEM Ambassadors Program. Now a senior, he will be graduating as an environmental science and German studies student.
Clark based his research on analyzing the toxicity of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) and its contamination in the environment and drinking water. He found its primary toxicants, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also occurred in the drinking water of his hometown, Westfield, Mass. He aimed to determine what drives AFFF toxicity, its interactive effects with mixed compounds, and its impact on developmental glutathione utilization, a system key for antioxidant and embryonic development.
“Being selected for the Pfizer award is so exciting and meaningful. It is an honor to be recognized by the science I am helping produce,” Clark said. “It will give me the chance to talk about a topic that is really important to me, serve as a platform to lift the voices of Westfield, and work as an advocate to ensure the protection of my community’s health.”
Joseph McGaunn is from Topsfield and is pursuing a double major in biochemistry and molecular biology and psychology. He is also completing an integrated concentration in science through the UMass iCons program and conducting research in the Suvorov lab. Joseph is involved in multiple projects, all of which are targeted at gaining insight into the influence that environmental toxins have on health and disease.
Joseph notes that his long-term goal is “to become a physician-scientist to establish a paradigm in precision medicine that considers the role of both genetics and environment in health and disease, since many complex diseases like psychiatric disorders, cancers, and metabolic diseases are influenced by both of these types of factors.”
“It really means a lot for the SOT to recognize my career goals and research in this way and give me a chance to attend,” says Joseph, reflecting on the opportunity to meet and learn from other researchers in the field.
Menna Teffera, also from Topsfield, is a public health major and a member of the 2020 cohort of Emerging Scholars. She started working on toxicology research in Suvurov’s lab in her junior year after she took a course in food toxicology.
“Working in the lab has been both a challenging experience and a rewarding one. The Suvorov lab is small, so I had to learn new concepts, techniques, and experimental methods quickly, and learn how to communicate with others effectively,” says Menna. “I am aware that I have had a privilege that is not granted to many students, especially students of color (and especially black students) like myself, and am grateful for the opportunities that I have had to get to this point. But I am also pleased that my own hard work has paid off.”
Menna notes, “I plan to pursue a graduate degree in toxicology after I finish my undergraduate degree, but welcome the opportunity to gain work experience before then. I hope that my receiving this award helps encourage other students of color, especially black students, to pursue toxicology.”
Alicia Timme-Laragy, an Associate Professor within the School of Public Health & Health Sciences, extends her gratitude to the Commonwealth Honors College for providing grants to students that help facilitate their independent studies, making it possible for undergraduates to pursue these advanced avenues of research.
Thank you to these four student researchers for their outstanding work; we are proud that they are a part of our community, and we are excited to continue to see the contributions that they make to the world at large.