SLIPPERY ROCK — Olivia Kaminski admits she didn’t know what imidacloprid was before agreeing to conduct research at Slippery Rock University studying its effects on human cells.
But it’s possible that she, and anyone who eats non-organic produce from the grocery store, has eaten foods containing imidacloprid, the most widely used insecticide in the world.
“That’s why I’m passionate about biology and I find this interesting because this is happening in your daily life,” said Kaminski, a Laurel High graduate and sophomore biology major from New Castle. “I would have done any research, but I like working with human cells and learning how each cell line reacts differently.”
Scientists have been studying these reactions for decades, and starting in 2013 the European Union began banning imidacloprid, mostly because it is highly toxic to pollinators such as honeybees. Imidacloprid has been used in the United States since 1994 and continues to be sold in more than 400 products to control fleas, insects and termites. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined there is no evidence that imidacloprid causes cancer, but some studies have shown that imidacloprid is moderately to highly toxic to vertebrates including birds and fish.
“When it’s sprayed on crops, it goes into the roots and it’s actually inside fruits and vegetables,” said Stacy Hrizo, associate professor of biology, who is leading the study at SRU. “We are trying to determine if it’s having effects on human cells and what concentrations of it needs to be present to have those effects.”
Under Hrizo’s guidance, Kaminski is treating a variety of human cells with imidacloprid to analyze the effects when exposed to the insecticide. Imidacloprid could potentially turn on stress pathways within the cells or, in the case of the breast cancer cells, accelerate their growth.
“People have done imidacloprid with human cells before, but they’ve focused on one cell line at a time and it’s been scattershot,” Hrizo said. “Our goal is to systematically look at the effects of imidacloprid because not all human cells respond the same way.”
Kaminski is working in the human cell biology lab at SRU for 300 hours this summer and is paid through a grant funded by the University’s Summer Collaborative Research Experience program, which helps introduce undergraduate students to the world of academic research.
Kaminski’s responsibility is to keep the cells alive on the different culture dishes and apply the treatments with the help of a machine called a spectrophotometer. Each set of experiments takes about a week to complete and Kaminski is running dozens of them at a time.
“The biggest thing I’m learning is that research takes a long time and it’s definitely a trial-and-error process,” Kaminski said. “This experience also benefits me because I’m able to start so early (in my college career) and I’m going to have many years of experience under my belt. This will definitely help me stand out when applying for graduate school and Ph.D. programs.”
The research project will continue throughout the academic year and Hrizo expects by the spring that they will have data to share. Depending on how conclusive the results are, Hrizo and Kaminski are planning to co-author a paper to submit to academic journals and present at conferences. Kaminski will also present her work at SRU’s annual Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity.