Kelsey Burnsed ('13, Biology)

Photo of Kelsey Burnsed What do you do for your undergraduate research?

I am studying the effects of the pyrethroid insecticide bifenthrin on brain aromatase expression and aggressive behavior in the bluehead wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum). Bifenthrin is increasingly used in agriculture, control of insect-borne disease spread, and residential pest-control. Recently, it has been found that this chemical disrupts hormone pathways and is likely estrogenic. The goal of my research is to better understand some of the effects of this endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC). Aromatase is an enzyme which converts testosterone to estrogen and the gene that codes for the enzyme is controlled, in part, by estrogen levels in the body. Bluehead wrasse are an Atlantic reef fish that changes sex from female to male following social cues and this change is mediated by hormone fluctuations. Thus, it is likely susceptible to the effects of bifenthrin. I am also analyzing video footage of interactions between fish because aggression and other social behaviors are heavily influenced by hormones, including estrogen.

What made you want to pursue an undergraduate research project?

I have been a student in the Honors College (initially the Honors Scholars Program) since I started at UNCW and the research project is the capstone my education in honors. So I didn't really consider whether or not I wanted to pursue a project as much as I knew that I wanted to be in the honors program and that the project would be a part of that.

How did you start your research project?

I met with my advisor and several professors whose classes I had either taken or planned to take before I started m project to find out more about possibilities for research and figure out who I wanted to work with for my project. While I was in the process of deciding my focus, I actually changed my entire career plans and dreams from wanting to be a physical therapist to wanting to be an internal medicine doctor. Because I was enjoying the endocrinology course she taught, I asked Dr. Brander about working with her. She was very open to meeting with me and, when she described the bluehead project, I realized it would be a good mesh of my healthcare career goals and my passion for coral reef ecosystems.

It isn’t required to do research as an undergrad, so what advantages do you think this experience has provided you?

Even though my career goals are not in line with continuing research, there are numerous advantages to having done undergraduate research. Obviously it looks excellent on my transcript and CV but the self-directed learning, time management, and discipline will also help me in the future. Additionally, I feel very comfortable reading primary literature because I've had so much practice doing so within this project. On the flip side, I have had to learn how to disseminate that knowledge in common language when applying for grants and fellowships and how to communicate my own findings in scientific prose. This will help me as a doctor to stay up-to-date with the latest medical research and then present information to my patients in terms they understand.

What recognition and/or grants did you receive for your research?

I recieved a CSURF Research Supplies Grant for the Spring 2013 semester and a Fall 2013 Ahuja Academy for Water Quality Undergraduate Fellowship through the UNCW Fellowship Competition. I am still applying for more grants this semester as well.

What are your plans after you receive your degree from UNCW?

I will be starting medical school next fall and then plan to practice primary care as an internal medicine physician in the future.

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