Antidepressants can be a lifesaver for those afflicted with mood and anxiety disorders, but the introduction of these pharmaceuticals to the wastewater treatment system and ultimately the environment may pose a serious threat to both fish and humans.
Nita Chavez, a senior chemistry major, is getting a unique opportunity to study the problem firsthand as a student researcher under the direction of Melissa Schultz, an assistant professor of chemistry who studies the fate of antidepressants in the environment and their effects on fish. "It has been a pleasure to work with Nita,” says Schultz. “She is extremely organized, has a good work ethic, and has a lot of enthusiasm for environmental research. I look forward to seeing where she takes this project over the course of the year."
Chavez is working on her senior Independent Study, or I.S., Wooster’s nationally acclaimed undergraduate research experience, which matches each student with a faculty mentor in pursuit of a particular topic that culminates in a thesis, performance, or exhibition of artwork.
“We’ve been looking at venlafaxine, the active ingredient in Effexor,” says Chavez, who came to Wooster from Ecuador by way of Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, where she learned to speak English at the age of 16. This past summer her focus was on fluoxetine, the active ingredient in Prozac, to see how much of the chemical is being absorbed and metabolized in the brain, liver, muscle and plasma — a follow up on research conducted by recent Wooster graduate Liz Sakach for her senior I.S.
Chavez traveled to Minnesota on a Copeland Fund grant during the summer to conduct research at St. Cloud University’s Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory. In a controlled study, Chavez prepared solutions of the venlafaxine at two different concentrations and exposed bluegill sunfish for 21 days. “The antidepressants do not kill the fish,” says Chavez, “but they accumulate in the tissue. Our objective is to determine how much [of the antidepressant] the fish are taking in.”
Answering this question, according to Schultz, is important in assessing the effects of antidepressants on individual organs in exposed (non-target) organisms and to identify organs of particular sensitivity to the effects of these compounds due to uptake rates. It is also important in investigating the degradation of the parent drug to pharmacologically active metabolites.
After completing her summer research, Chavez returned to campus where she has been spending as many as 15 hours in the lab each week measuring tissue content of venlafaxine on Wooster’s liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometer. Having access to such an instrument as an undergraduate gives Wooster students an edge, says Chavez.
One of the consequences of antidepressants in fish may be their ability (or lack thereof) to elude predators, something Schultz and her fellow researchers continue to study. In the meantime, Chavez will keep compiling data for her I.S. before moving on to the next phase of her journey. “After graduation, I plan to work for one or two years, and then apply to grad school,” she says. “Right now, I need a little more time to sort things out.”
Despite her rigorous academic schedule, Chavez is active in a range of activities on campus. She has been a resident advisor since her sophomore year and a representative of her native Ecuador in Wooster’s Ambassadors Program. She has also worked at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), served as a monitor in Wooster’s Ebert Art Center, and as a student assistant in Wooster’s career services office. In addition, she traveled to India through a Lilly Project Humanitarian Fellowship.
“It’s a busy schedule, but I like having a lot to do,” says Chavez. “Wooster has so much to offer, and I’ve really tried to take advantage of all the opportunities.”
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