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Lauren Stranahan ’12 researches the effect of pharmaceutical drugs on aquatic life

Lauren Stranahan ’12 has always enjoyed living with animals and observing their behaviors, and for the last two years, the biology major did just that, researching the effect of pharmaceutical drugs on the environment.
Stranahan focused on the antidepressant drug Prozac, one of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants in the United States.

“Plenty of pharmaceutical drugs are released in the water system and not filtered out, so trace amounts remain,” Stranahan says. “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 Scholar’s findings into pharmaceutical effects on small fish may hold clues to the way drugs can impact early human development.

“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 says. “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 says. “Even an environmentally relevant level of drugs was actually having an impact.”

The zebrafish research has already been submitted in an article to the journal Aquatic Toxicology, which Stranahan’s faculty mentor Linda Niedziela, associate professor of biology, called “pretty impressive for an undergraduate.” Stranahan says 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 says. “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.”