The Easy Lab Team Takes on the Tough Questions

If you’re going to make it in the Easy Lab, you can’t be afraid to get your feet wet – or muddy or slimy for that matter. 

Dr. Russell Easy of Acadia University has put together a lab of outstanding undergraduate and graduate scientists studying how a variety of organisms react to environmental stressors. His research program is unique in that “the work [they] do complements ongoing research at Acadia University and expands upon current research in animal stress,” as explained on the official Easy Lab website

Meet the Easy Lab Team

Honours student Kassandra Kelbratowski was always interested in biology, but discovered an affinity for genetics and molecular science once she began taking classes with Dr. Easy. 

“It felt like I was learning about a field that was actively unfolding before me, leaving so much space for curiosities about what could be discovered,” she says.

Under the supervision of Dr. Easy and Dr. Hillier, Kelbratowski is contributing to an ongoing study of Heliothine moth pheromone reception. It has recently been demonstrated that female Heliothine moths can detect female-produced pheromones – a phenomena referred to as autodetection.

Her research quantifies the expression of antennae receptor genes after being exposed to their own pheromone compounds. 

Kelbratowski hopes to contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of how these mechanisms work in order to positively impact the environment through measures like population management and agricultural harm reduction.

Entering her final year of study, Aileen Feschuk’s research takes her waist-deep into swampy marshes. Working with Dr. Easy and Dr. Todd Smith, Feschuk catches frogs in order to study their coats of epidermal mucus where antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) reside and function as the immune system’s first line of defence.

Feschuk explains that despite the green frog being the most abundant frog species in Nova Scotia very little is known about the gene pathways involved in the production of AMPs. 

“Something many people do not know or do not understand about AMPs is their full potential,” Feschuk says. Their benefits are vast, ranging from protection against bacteria and viruses to fighting HIV, cancers and even serving as a potential alternative treatment that avoids antibiotic resistance. 

Feschuk is out to discover how changes in temperature affect the green frog’s ability to stay healthy during hibernation periods when their immune system is most vulnerable – a particularly relevant question given the extreme changes occurring in seasonal temperatures due to global warming. 

Will Bauer describes his research on freshwater swan mussels, Anodonta cygnea, as “characterizing a genetic anomaly within a genetic anomaly.” With Dr. Easy and in collaboration with Dr. Don Stewart, Bauer explores how these hermaphroditic organisms have open reading frames (ORFs) in their mitochondrial DNA that can be translated in two directions instead of only one. 

While most animals inherit mitochondria from their mothers, mussels inherit from both parents. Freshwater swan mussels are unique amongst mussels in that their ORFs are of a different size and location in the mitochondria. 

Understanding more about this genetic anomaly is critical due to the population’s declining number and hermaphroditism’s evolutionary unviability. 

Bauer came to study genetics through a series of personal and medical events in his life. As a teenager he suffered from retinal detachment and it wasn’t until after his third surgery that he was diagnosed with a minor genetic disorder. 

During this time, he also began learning about genetics in high school biology. He received encouragement from several of his teachers including English teacher Kim Smart who urged him to read about Pharmacogenetics; an education he recalls as “the defining project that led me to decide to pursue genetics as a career.” 

Allie Scovil completed her BSc with Honours in Biology this past May and has graduated to the position of Research Assistant in the Easy Lab.

Her honours research explored gene expression during wound healing and limb regeneration in her favourite marine creature: the common sea star. 

Scovil researched four sets of genes involved in healing and regenerative processes using genes with a high degree of shared ancestry between sea stars and humans.  

Big picture, Scovil wants to know how these processes can be replicated in higher level invertebrates and further what is currently known about neurodegenerative disorders and neuroregeneration in animals. 

Next steps for Scovil include playing her final season on the Acadia Women’s Varsity Soccer team and beginning her masters at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John in January 2020 where she will study the harm done to young Atlantic cod and American lobster from oil spills and the effect of current response measures. 

The Easy Lab is a bustling place producing research at a rapid pace. Keep an eye out for these budding scientists as they continue their academic journeys on the Easy Lab website and on Facebook

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