Fish Tales

As a young girl it was not uncommon to find Susanne Brander in the ocean or on the beach. One of her favorite things to do as a kid was grabbing things out of the water and being, as she puts it, “a dork about it.”

While others her age played with dolls or hosted pretend tea parties, Brander enjoyed studying different oceanic organisms and collecting all kinds of creatures from the sea. In fact, Brander was doing all the things that would indicate she would eventually become a scientist.

Her journey to University of North Carolina Wilmington as an assistant professor in the biology and marine biology department, however, wasn’t an easy one. Nor was it a fast-paced process. There were roadblocks, years of false starts, and bouts of uncertainty, but eventually it would be a dream that would come true.

“I came from a family in which no one had even been to a four-year college, so I didn’t even know what one would need to do to become a scientist,” Brander says.

From an extremely supportive middle class family, Brander admits that part of the process was getting enough confidence to pursue her dream.

“I thought it was something only geniuses could do. The biggest roadblock, though, was not knowing anyone else who was a scientist,” she says. “Also, just not knowing anything about grad schools, how one gets in, and the process – there were no role models, no one that looked like me was a scientist or a professor.” 

It wasn’t until Brander finished her bachelor’s degree at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, that she wholeheartedly recognized she could, in fact, be a scientist – a career Brander believes isn’t immediately sold to young women.

From there, she accepted a position at The Nature Conservancy in Washington D.C. After a few years, Brander began a master’s program at Johns Hopkins University in environmental science. Add in some internships that involved trips to Thailand and the U.S. Virgin Islands helping with sea turtle conservation, a few years at an environmental consulting firm in Tiburon, California doing experiments with fish, and a helpful blend of people doing scientific work as a career, and Brander finally learned what she needed to do in order to get her own Ph.D.

In 2011, Brander did it. She received her Ph.D. in toxicology.

Today, Brander is putting her doctoral degree to great work for the community, as she’s studying the ecological impacts of manufactured chemicals on estuarine fish – that is, the fish that live where the mouth of the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic, in particular, the inland silverside fish.

It’s a study that’s earned her a $400,000 grant through the STAR Program (or Science to Achieve Results).

So, why this fish? And why should we care? The answer is one that is least expected.

As Brander explaines, the silverside fish is kind of right smack in the middle of the food chain. It’s a fish that’s been used for the Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA) for years in water quality studies. And it’s a fish that not many outside biology really think about, yet can be found nearly all around us.

But, here’s where it gets interesting. If you look at a cell in a fish and a cell in a human, and the ovaries of a human and the ovaries of a fish, the similarities are astounding. And a lot of what can be found contaminating fish can also be found inside the human body. Eating the fish is only half the issue. We swim, drink, and bathe in the same water.

“My work as an environmental toxicologist focuses on measuring responses to the contaminants (changes in gene expression, number of eggs laid, immune response),” Brander says. “Fish tend to bioaccumulate things that concentrate in their fat tissue, compounds such as pesticides, plasticizers, and flame retardants.

“This study focuses on two classes of contaminants specifically: a pyrethroid pesticide called bifenthrin (used for mosquito control, termites) and a synthetic steroid (pharmaceutical) called levonorgestrel (designed to mimic the natural hormone progesterone).”

Considered emerging contaminants, because not a lot is known about their effects on wildlife, bifenthrin has been shown to interfere with estrogen signaling in fish, and levonorgestrel can cause fish to become masculinized, show studies Brander and others have already completed in silversides and other fish species.

Brander’s grant has a multipronged strategy.

Through the EPA’s Chemical Safety for Sustainability research program, which develops new methods to advance chemical evaluation and support environmental sustainability, Brander wants to establish the silverside fish as a bio indicator species

“When you think about pollution,” Brander says, “you think of oil spills, birds, and other baby animals covered in nothing but oil. It’s more than that. People think a lot less of the daily input – pesticide run off and wastewater treatment. It will never make the nightly news, but the silverside fish are constantly exposed to what I call, a low level pollution soup.”

The ultimate plan, though, is to present the findings to scientific conferences across the nation to other environmental toxicologists. And the grant will also help provide travel support for Brander and her team. The hope is that the EPA will use the data to determine future laws.

Really, the $400,000 grant is more about the connection to the future. Expecting her second child soon, a daughter, Brander agrees that her study is more about understanding how everyday actions impacts the environment and its reverberation to future generations.

The generations who, like Brander used to do, may enjoy playing at the beach. To do so, the key might be taking a closer look at this little bait fish located smack dap in the middle of the food chain.


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