E-Net News

Lumen Scholar measures impact of Prozac on aquatic life

Elon senior Lauren Stranahan researched the effects on zebrafish of drugs that make their way into natural water supplies.

Elon University senior Lauren Stranahan with her Lumen Prize mentor, Associate Professor Linda Niedziela


By Natalie Allison ‘13

Elon University senior Lauren Stranahan has always enjoyed living with animals and observing their behaviors, and for the previous two years, the biology major has done just that: Researching the effect of pharmaceutical drugs on the environment.

The native of Chapel Hill, N.C., focused on the antidepressant drug Prozac, one of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants in the United States, and her research involving Prozac’s impact on zebrafish is the last to be featured this academic year in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2012.

“Plenty of pharmaceutical drugs are released in the water system and not filtered out, so trace amounts remain,” Stranahan said. “Even aquatic life is vulnerable to developmental problems. My question was, ‘If I expose eggs and zebrafish larvae to Prozac, would they have lasting defects?”

The implications of Stranahan’s work are important as many wastewater treatment plants don’t remove trace amounts of prescription drugs from water. The Lumen Scholars’s findings into pharmaceutical effects on small fish may hold clues to the way drugs can impact early human development.

Stranahan developed the experiment after reading an article in National Geographic and seeing an accompanying photo illustration — a fish made entirely out of pills. She set out to measure activity levels of zebrafish larvae exposed to a concentration of Prozac similar to what would be found in an outdoor environment.

“It’s an issue of ongoing research today, the effects of various pharmaceutical drugs on fish, frogs and any aquatic life that might be exposed to it,” she said. “I knew a lot more research is needed.”

With her Lumen Prize funding, Stranahan purchased TopScan, software that allowed her to track the movement of larvae with greater precision than measuring motion through circular patterns and a grid. Her experiments confirmed that Prozac was, in fact, hindering the development of the aquatic life she studied.

“I found that as early as four weeks after being exposed to the drug every day, the zebrafish larvae showed significantly lower activity than the control fish,” Stranahan said. “Even an environmentally relevant level of drugs was actually having an impact.”

While studying fish was never her first choice for animal research, Stranahan realized their less complex behavior, coupled with the past research experience of her faculty mentor, Associate Professor Linda Niedziela, made zebrafish a good place to start.

“Lauren’s a great student and has done more research than any undergraduate I’ve worked with in a decade now,” Niedziela said. “She’s amazing in the amount of work she’s accomplished. I can’t say enough about her in terms of her intellectual ability to look at a problem as well as her work ethic in pulling together a great project.”

The zebrafish research has already been submitted in an article to the journal Aquatic Toxicology, which Niedziela called “pretty impressive for an undergraduate.”

The Lumen prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements.

Lumen scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

In addition to her Lumen project, Stranahan has since 2006 volunteered at the North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center in Mebane, a place where developmentally disabled children can take horseback riding lessons.

Stranahan said the Lumen research has taught her more about research and piqued her interested for further projects once she enters veterinarian school after graduation.

“Doing research not only connected me with my mentor, but other research students and the biology department as a whole,” she said. “That was the most meaningful thing to me — I actually felt like a valuable part of biology department, like I really belonged. It’s a great way to connect with people in your field and get lasting support from and relationships with those people.”

Eric Townsend,
5/10/2012 8:19 AM