Baylor Graduate Student Wins Prestigious EPA Graduate Fellowship

September 26, 2007

by Frank Raczkiewicz

Laura Dobbins, a Baylor University graduate student from Knoxville, Tenn. has been awarded a Greater Research Opportunities Graduate Fellowship by the Environmental Protection Agency. Dobbins is among 98 students chosen from more than 1,200 applicants nationwide for the highly coveted fellowships.

"I am very excited to be able to have the opportunity to be part of such a well-respected program, especially because it will bolster my studies and opportunities while here at Baylor," Dobbins said. "It is definitely an academic achievement and honor to be able to have research that you developed as a master's student funded by an outside source, and I couldn't be any more grateful for the opportunity to conduct my research as a Fellow and a Baylor student."

The award will provide Dobbins with research funding for the next two years as she studies the aquatic toxicology of a group of compounds called parabens. Parabens are used as preservatives in many personal care products, pharmaceuticals and foods. While these compounds have been found in treated wastewater discharges to rivers, their effects on aquatic life are not fully known. Dobbins will be studying the potential disruption to the endocrine system of the fish caused by parabens. It is believed that parabens disrupt hormonal responses in the endocrine system of male fish by mimicking the effects of estrogen, an endogenous hormone, thus ultimately causing reproduction rates to fall.

The approach Dobbins will be using to gather and analyze the data also is unique. Chemical Toxicity Distribution, or CTD, incorporates a distribution of effects values derived from a variety of chemicals that elicit the same effect in the organism. In other words, when researchers determine the amount of a toxicant in the water, they will have an effects value for each paraben. The value for each paraben is then plotted against a probability scale and creates a distribution that can be utilized to make predictions, such as the percentage of parabens that will elicit the effect in an organism at a given concentration.

"Laura's novel study design has the potential provide new toxicology information for a group of understudied compounds," said Dr. Bryan Brooks, associate professor of environmental science and biomedical studies at Baylor. "But more importantly, it may demonstrate the utility of a unique probabilistic risk assessment approach for other emerging contaminants in the environment."

For more information, contact Dr. Brooks at (254) 710-6553.