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Amphibians’ hormones may hold answers to population decline

While drivers may be thankful for salted roads in the winter, biologist Grascen Shidemantle is determined to find out whether they’re harming animals. 

Shidemantle, a doctoral student at Binghamton University, studies how human activity and pollution affects amphibians on sublethal levels. She studies their physiology, behavior and interactions in the lab of Jessica Hua, an assistant professor of biological sciences. 

“Across the globe, we see that amphibian populations are declining,” Shidemantle says. “By trying to figure out how human activities influence these animals, we can get a better idea of why we’re seeing decreases.” 

Shidemantle grew up watching countless hours of Animal Planet in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. While studying biology at Slippery Rock University, her love of animals attracted her to a research lab that studied the effects of pesticides on amphibians, equipping her with a range of skills in toxicology and endocrinology — the study of hormones and their associated glands.  

At Binghamton, Shidemantle is working on two studies: One explores the relationship between salt-tolerance and stress levels in wood frogs; another compares physiological differences in salt-tolerant and non-tolerant populations. 

The former project is conducted with an Onondaga Community College student through the Bridges to the Baccalaureate Program, which introduces community college students to research as they transition to four-year colleges. With guidance from Shidemantle, these undergraduates study corticosterone levels, or stress hormones, in wood frogs using equipment that Shidemantle helped purchase and taught other lab students how to use. 

“Before Grascen, my lab didn’t have the capacity of measuring corticosterone levels,” Hua says. “A lot of the chemicals that contaminate the ecosystem are endocrine disruptors. For example, there are pesticides that can cause male frogs to become female frogs when exposed at low levels. Grascen’s expertise of endocrinology helps us understand why and how these chemicals modify hormones. And how that affects an organism’s responses at a larger level.”

Shidemantle and her mentee’s corticosterone research is expected to be published before the end of the year. 

“Now all of a sudden everybody in my lab wants to do hormone research,” Hua jokes. “But what really makes Grascen so impressive is her genuine desire to do good for the world.”

Shidemantle recently received a 2019 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP), as well as grants from the NYS Wetlands Forum, the Society for Freshwater Science and the Pymatuning Lab of Ecology run by the University of Pittsburgh. 

She will soon visit with a collaborator in Spain to learn techniques to measure another form of stress — oxidative stress — that occurs when there is an imbalance of harmful free radicals and antioxidants that act as neutralizers. This study involves two other graduate students in Hua’s lab.

“I feel like science is changing in a really positive way,” Shidemantle says. “It used to be that if you didn’t know something you weren’t a good scientist. Now I feel that scientists are more open about having questions or hardships, whether it’s in terms of your research and experiments or like personal issues that come up by being in this field.”

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