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DWU research team looks at connections in air pollution to the brain

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series on undergraduate research at Dakota Wesleyan University. For several hours each week, professor Paula Mazzer and her students watch brain cells grow. Mazzer, an assistant professor in the bio...

Junior Tyler Fortuna uses a microscope to look at brain cells on Friday at Dakota Wesleyan University. The research team is studying the effects of air pollution on the brain. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)
Junior Tyler Fortuna uses a microscope to look at brain cells on Friday at Dakota Wesleyan University. The research team is studying the effects of air pollution on the brain. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series on undergraduate research at Dakota Wesleyan University.

For several hours each week, professor Paula Mazzer and her students watch brain cells grow.

Mazzer, an assistant professor in the biochemistry department at Dakota Wesleyan University, has formed a team with 11 students to study how air pollution affects cells in the brain.

Anywhere from two to six hours each week, these undergraduate students are spending their extra time in a dedicated lab space of the Glenda K. Corrigan Health Sciences Center studying different types of brain cell samples taken from mice.

Each cell reacts differently to air pollution, which is the culmination of all different sorts of particulates from dirt tossed into the air from plowing to automotive exhaust.

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Studies have been connecting air pollution to the circulatory and respiratory systems of the body causing heart and asthma attacks. And more recently, air pollution has also been connected with adverse effects on the brain.

Mazzer and her team are studying the different types of particulates within air pollution, which can enter the brain through the nose, that are causing these effects.

As the brain cells grow, Mazzer and her team of students look at how the cells respond chemically to the different types of air pollution. The goal is to target which particulates are causing the effects, and eventually eliminate them from the air.

Mazzer has three teams of students working on the project. One team, which has five students, is focused on the types of brain cells. The second team, which also has five students, is looking at neurons, which are cells that transmit nerve impulses. The third team, which only has one student so far, is using computer programming to analyze the data.

Expanding undergraduate research on campus

Originally, Mazzer wanted to be a marine biologist. But after coming across the field of toxicology, she was hooked. Toxicology, or the study of "why stuff is poisonous," is a passion of Mazzer's. When she came across the study connecting pollution to the brain, she knew that was what she wanted her research to focus on.

Mazzer started her research on pollution and brain cells about eight years ago when she was working with another university. The school did not focus on work with undergraduate research students, and Mazzer decided it was time for a change. She began her job at Dakota Wesleyan in 2011 and started looking for students to join her research team. It was "slow going at first," until more students became interested in research.

There are several professors at Dakota Wesleyan who are focusing more on undergraduate research projects, but Mazzer said she would like to see it grow and become a bigger part of campus.

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And not just for the research, but for the student's personal experiences and learning at DWU.

"Every academic scientist believes we are adding to human knowledge, and we are. Teeny little incremental amounts, but we are," Mazzer said. "The biggest payoff is in the students who come out trained in research."

Kayla Weber, a senior at Dakota Wesleyan double majoring in biochemistry and psychology, plans to go to medical school after she graduates. And in her time in the lab working with Mazzer and her peers, she's realized the importance of the research.

"I like the idea of being able to discover something that nobody else knows and I enjoy being in the lab with friends and splitting cells," Weber said. "It's fun. Who can really say, 'I split cells before?' and get to look at brain cells every day, so I enjoy that. And the fact that we can have an impact on future research."

Mazzer said undergraduate research in general is becoming more important at universities. She has already seen this growth at DWU, where she initially had a difficult time gaining students' interest to now with a full team of 11 students, with more interested in joining.

"It's been very rapid," she said.

And this year, thanks to the grants Mazzer has obtained, all of the student researchers are being paid for their work. They had $42,400 set aside specifically to pay for the student researchers' hours this year, Mazzer said.

Mazzer's research will span for several years, each year focusing on a different aspect of pollution and brain cells.

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"The thing about research is every time you answer a question, you think of five more. So we will only be answering specific questions this year but more questions will emerge from these," Mazzer said. "So this particular research focus will probably continue for quite a while."

Related Topics: DAKOTA WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY
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