Young UVA researchers share their labs’ hidden treasures

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UVA graduate Anna Greenlee wears a rubber glove when handling her rough-skinned newts, each of which contains enough toxin in its skin to kill 12 grown men. Photo by Laura Ingles. UVA graduate Anna Greenlee wears a rubber glove when handling her rough-skinned newts, each of which contains enough toxin in its skin to kill 12 grown men. Photo by Laura Ingles.

Tucked away in a chilly corner room in Gilmer Hall are rows of plastic aquariums, each home to a rough-skinned newt with enough toxin in its skin to kill up to 12 grown men. The poisonous amphibians are just one example of research quietly moving forward on Grounds thanks to the work of young, passionate scientists.

Gilmer is also a home away from home for UVA graduate Anna Greenlee and Ph.D. candidate Karen Kubow, who spend their days examining live specimens in the University’s biology department. While their projects may not get much press, the young researchers get a kick out of their work, and think it’s important to share it with the public.

Greenlee, a recent UVA biology grad, has spent most of her summer treating the newts’ water with antibiotics to determine whether the deadly nature of their skin is due to bacteria. Researchers change the water every three days and test fecal samples once a month, looking for a telltale drop in bacteria levels among treated newts, which could bear evolutionary implications for other species.

The work is labor-intensive, Greenlee said, but she loves it. “Both my parents are biologists,” she explained with a shrug. When she was a kid, she played with a microscope instead of video games.

Down the hall, Kubow, who already has an undergraduate and master’s degree in environmental science under her belt, is working toward a Ph.D. in ecology. She recently received a grant to study the American Bellflower, which appears to be in the process of splitting into two separate species. Cross-breeding the two genetically different wildflowers can result in albino offspring, which cannot photosynthesize and immediately die.

Kubow wants to determine which genetic combinations result in healthy hybrids, and regularly checks on her green and white seedlings in the fridge.

Kubow said she loves solving the puzzle of scientific research and answering the ever-present question “Why?”

“The moment when you discover something new, that no one else knows, is every exciting,” she said.

But Kubow said being a young scientist is not always easy. Grants, which are essential in funding academic research, are not always easy to get a hold of, and Kubow said she was relieved when her recent project was approved for funding.

She said she appreciates the recognition her department gets in the academic community, but wouldn’t mind seeing more interest from those who might never have ventured into the bowels of the biology building.

“I have always felt that as scientists we could do a better job of communicating our work to the general public,” she said. “There is always room for improvement.”

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