Warren Wilson College News

Alligators and phthalates: undergraduate research with Jane Margaret Bell

This article is part of The Story Behind, a regular series that features extraordinary photos from Warren Wilson life. (Click here to see more.)

Jane Margaret and a gator

Last semester I took my Research Design class and began the arduous task of my Natural Science Undergraduate Research Sequence (NSURS).

I decided to work with chemistry/environmental studies professor John Brock and chose a topic with wildlife and human health implications: phthalate exposure in alligators from Merritt Island, Fla., home of the NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center. Phthalates are synthetic toxic chemicals found readily in the environment and act as endocrine disrupting anti-androgens that decrease testosterone in the body.

In my project I am evaluating the levels of phthalates in alligators and studying their metabolism patterns. I traveled to Charleston, S.C., to work with scientists at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Hollings Marine Lab. With international researcher Louis Guillette and his team of graduate students, I ventured further south to Merritt Island, where we caught alligators, performed health checks and extracted urine for my phthalate study.

We caught eight gators; in the photo, you can see me atop our first catch (about 10 ft long) and the first gator I’d ever been close to. When I chose my project, I knew it was a big deal, but I didn’t know I’d get to work with such amazing scientists and have so much fun.

In March I plan to go back to MUSC and run samples and hopefully catch more gators. Though Warren Wilson College may be small and not yet well known in the research world, its connections with prominent organizations run deep. This opportunity has given me access to world-class research and sparked my passion to pursue environmental toxicology in graduate school and in my career. I can’t wait!

Jane Margaret Bell is a senior environmental chemistry major/chemistry minor from Brevard, N.C.

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