STUDENT VOICES

November 20, 2019

Travel Report: Blake Danis, Biological Sciences

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Blake Danis, a PhD student in Biological Sciences, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award  (GIRTA) to further his research in Indiana. His report:

SFU to Purdue

Human induced environmental change has played a part in numerous species declines, including population declines in more than 40% of amphibians by introducing many different stresses on organisms at the same time. As human population levels increase, along with ever expanding industrial and agricultural practices, what are the impacts on local amphibian populations?

My goal is to investigate how contaminants from agricultural and industrial practices impact amphibian survival and development using histological and molecular techniques to gain a better understanding of effects. I am two years into my research and have been able to conduct exposure experiments, molecular, and histological techniques to determine the effects of individuals exposed to said contaminants. One element that could help increase my understanding of contaminant effects would be to look at the larger ecological implications of contaminant effects on populations, including the role of tolerance and disease structure modifications. Upon receiving the Graduate International Research and Travel Award (GIRTA) from SFU, I was thrilled as I would be able to link up with amphibian researchers at Purdue University in Indiana for six weeks of work to investigate parts of this question.

My direct point of contact was with Dr. R.W. Flynn, a post-doctoral researcher in two labs in the Forestry and Natural Resources Department at Purdue University. The first lab, Dr. Jason Hoverman's lab, focuses on contaminant effects on amphibians and ties in disease ecology to further understand the indirect impacts of exposures. The second lab, Dr. Marisol Sepulveda's lab, uses molecular and histological techniques to determine the effects of contaminants on organisms. Both labs are currently investigating the effects of emerging contaminants, polyfluoroalkyl substances, on local amphibians. The ability to collaborate with an individual who is a researcher in two labs allowed me to take full advantage of the time I had at Purdue.

During my visit I was able to assist with a disease ecology exposure investigating trematode infection rates in amphibians. Through this I learnt techniques in conducting a trematode infection exposure, as well as a trematode time to effect exposure to different pesticides used in agricultural practices in the area. I was unfortunately too short on time to conduct a rana virus exposure, however I have set up avenues for collaboration on this research in the future. In addition to these exposures, I conducted a study on the effects of polyfluoroalkyl substances and commonly used pesticides on bullfrog tadpoles to consider the additive or synergistic effects of a lifelike exposure event. I also assisted with determining the sex of organisms and how sex played a role in frog responds to contaminants.

Work with Dr. Flynn led us to Michigan to attend the Michigan Wetlands Association General Meeting 2019, and to conduct field sampling to determine contaminant levels in wetlands adjacent to a decommissioned air force base. These samples were brought back to the lab and set aside for processing, and I learnt the ways in which contaminants can be tracked through a food web with isotope analysis. Lastly, additional work with Dr. Flynn was focused on the maternal transfer of contaminants to offspring, and in particular how contaminants are passed to offspring and ways these contaminants may behave in the egg mass itself. The processing technique and analysis of this data will assist in future study designs back at SFU.  

The GIRTA provided me with the opportunity to work with some incredible amphibian researchers that are few and far in-between here at SFU, and highlighted the graduate culture in a different university and country. The time spent at Purdue has facilitated new ideas and discovery, and will further influence my academic career in the future. I am grateful to SFU for the GIRTA funding and to Dr. Vicki Marlatt for this opportunity.

Mesocosm set up at the Purdue Wildlife area