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scientist working on test tubes in lab

Risk assessment

By Bob Burdick

Terra Magazine

Biochemistry & Biophysics research

When Annika Swanson arrived as a freshman at Oregon State in 2010, she already had a life purpose: join the ranks of research faculty studying the causes and effects of environmental pollution.

"I’ve always had a deep interest in the environment and in environmental toxins and pollution. This began when I was younger and my parents took my sister and me on camping and hiking trips to national parks throughout the west. Very often there were presentations by park rangers, wildlife biologists and other experts, who discussed the type of changes pollution was producing in wildlife ecosystems."

As a student in the College of Science and OSU’s Honors College, Swanson, a biochemistry and biophysics major, is progressing rapidly toward her goal. She has already worked full time as an undergraduate researcher, and just wrapped up a year studying abroad at Lancaster University in Northern England, where she completed pre-requisites in physics, organic chemistry, photochemistry and genetics, among other subjects.

When Swanson begins her junior year in September, it will be as a recipient of a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship Award, one of only 282 awarded nationally. Given by the Barry M. Goldwater Excellence in Education Foundation, the scholarships provide financial support for outstanding students in science, mathematics and engineering during their junior and senior years.

Her undergraduate research on environmental toxins at OSU formed the basis for her Goldwater scholarship application and was a key factor in her choosing Lancaster University for her study abroad experience.

“After several months of searching, I was lucky to find a lab that accepted undergraduate students (apparently uncommon in the U.K.) and volunteered under Dr. Robert Lauder in a biomedical research lab investigating glycosaminoglycans, proteoglycans, and the effects of hydroxyl radicals,” she said.

The right place

Swanson’s is certainly a story of pursuit of a dream, but also of encouragement along the way. She was assisted in her interest in science by her father, Peter Swanson, a geophysicist for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) who investigates earthquakes produced by mining and the hazards they pose to underground miners.

“I took every science course offered in my high school,” she says, adding she regrets there weren’t more of them.

Swanson chose to study in OSU’s College of Science because it offered a breadth of outstanding and inter-related academic programs in an environment where she could get to know her professors and even perform research with them as an undergraduate. She says she has not been disappointed.

“I thought OSU would provide a better experience, enable me to be closer to my professors, offer exposure to different fields, have undergraduate research opportunities – and it has definitely been worth it,” she says.

When she got to Oregon State, Swanson’s advisor, senior biochemistry instructor Kevin Ahern, listened when she delved more deeply into her passion for working on issues related to environmental toxicity, and helped guide her interests toward biochemistry and biophysics. He also introduced her to Dr. Robyn Tanguay, a Distinguished Professor of environmental and molecular toxicology.

Between her freshman and sophomore years, Swanson worked full time as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HMMI) undergraduate researcher in the Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory under Tanguay’s direction.

There, Swanson studied oxygenated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (OPAHs). OPAHs are organic compounds that can form through incomplete combustion, for example, in automobile exhaust, industrial waste, wood burning, and tobacco smoke.

Even though OPAHs are widely prevalent in the environment, relatively little is known about the health hazards they pose. Their toxicity can vary widely, and some have been shown to cause adverse effects including cancer, genetic mutations, and mortality in certain organisms.

Swanson’s research project “involves the use of zebrafish as a model for human health in order to determine the causes of OPAH toxicity during development.” Research at the Tanguay lab demonstrates some can cause mutations in zebrafish.

Swanson and her co-researchers are studying how these compounds enter cells and do their damage. Understanding how OPAHs can be harmful to health may lead to a better understanding of the risks associated with OPAH levels in the environment.

This fall, Swanson is looking forward to continuing her research in the Tanguay lab and analyzing OPAHs found in sediment in the environment. Her success as a Goldwater applicant was due, in large part, to the research she accomplished in the lab.

Swanson was selected for the Goldwater Scholarship from among 1,123 students nominated by faculty at colleges and universities throughout the nation. Ahern initially encouraged Swanson to apply based on the strength of the research she was pursuing.

“The Goldwater Scholarship is not only a great honor, it also will be very helpful in reducing my costs as an out-of-state student,” says Swanson, a native of Spokane, Washington.

A member of a community

As a University Honors College student, Swanson quickly developed a network of friends and faculty at OSU, important for someone who knew “absolutely no one” when she arrived there as a freshman. Last spring she took a white water rafting trip with members of the Biochemistry and Biophysics Club, which she says was “a great bonding experience for all of us.”

Her undergraduate research work expanded her friend network and has provided valuable one-on-one opportunities to work with graduate students, faculty and others holding doctorates in her field. Working in the lab also has strengthened her understanding of the knowledge she is gaining in the classroom.

During her senior year, Swanson hopes to be able to study abroad again for one quarter, this time focusing more specifically on her research. Although she says she hasn’t yet begun to consider which graduate schools to apply to, it is a subject that comes up frequently.

“My family may be moving to Colorado because my father might be assigned a new area of responsibility for NIOSH. This may motivate me to choose a graduate school closer to them.”

When Swanson returns to campus this fall, she’ll be fresh off a planned 800-kilometer pilgrimage across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago (aka the Way of St. James), a spiritual journey that pilgrims of all faiths and backgrounds have traversed for over a thousand years.

Oh, and she is eagerly anticipating taking her first upper-division science course.

“Finally, I get to take biochemistry!”