Celebrating research from the sciences to the humanities, the 21st annual Research and Creative Activities Symposium (RaCAS) primed creative minds and broke records this year, as more than 500 participants and viewers from the University of Colorado Denver and Anschutz Medical Campus joined in the event.
A record 238 student presentations infused two floors of the Student Commons Building at CU Denver with passionate inquiry on April 27, delving into topics from plastic safety to sunscreen bans. Under the guidance of a new director, it was the largest RaCAS turnout ever in the research showcase’s two-decade history.
“That was one of my goals when I took this job,” said Lindsey Hamilton, director of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities, who accepted the reins as RaCAS director on Jan. 1. “I wanted to bring more awareness to the research that’s taking place on our campuses and change the impression of RaCAS to be more inclusive of all scholarly work.”
Rather than focusing solely on outstanding completed research, Hamilton and crew advertised heavily that projects in progress and of all levels were welcome. “This is a great opportunity to practice presentation,” Hamilton said. “We told them communicating their work was a learning experience and a critical component to their education. And it worked. We had a great turnout.”
For the first time, RaCAS involved student- rather than faculty-organized mini-symposiums, with a record 15 participants. Hamilton also added an Emerging Scholar award to the honoree list, acknowledging the work of 19 students.
After seeking a research topic that affects them all, Kaitlin Sutton, Tiare Poleschook and Paula Kretschmann changed their behaviors based on what they found. And the trio is likely to sound the alarm for years to come.
“It’s super important,” Sutton said of the classmates’ research on BPA (bisphenol-A), a chemical found in 95 percent of all products containing polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. “It is so ubiquitous in our environment. Every single day, you are being infiltrated by this chemical.”
Inspired by their Hormones and Behavior course, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences students found numerous studies linking BPA, which has a similar structure to estrogen, to detrimental effects in humans and animals.
By binding to estrogen receptors, research suggests BPA can affect an array of functions, including fetal health and fertility in men and women.
Basically, it seeps into your hormone system and messes it up,” Sutton said. “And we know our hormones are what regulate all of our human growth and development rates.” BPA can be found in receipts, cell-phone covers, canned goods, plastic containers and even household dust.
The women narrowed their focus to 24 scholarly articles testing BPA’s effects on epigenetic modifications (inheritable genetic changes) in both sexes. They didn’t like what they found.
For males, the chemical can alter semen quality, pubertal timing and estradiol levels, the trio learned. And for females, it can change estrogen receptors, increase infertility and decrease egg quality. Worse, both men and women can pass the genetic changes to a developing fetus, research suggests.
“So it’s not only messing up our hormones,” Sutton said. “It can change the way our genes are expressed, and then our grandchildren don’t even have to be directly exposed to have the same effects. That’s really scary. It’s affecting us and future generations.”
Poleschook noted that it’s not always possible for researchers to unequivocally say BPA is a causative link in humans and that more research needs to be done.
Project with a purpose
For Kilinoelani Montgomery, her research subject hit close to home. Hearing about a proposed ban on chemical-based sunscreens in her native Hawaii, and having seen the proclaimed effects with her own eyes, she hoped a sunscreen comparison could give her confidence in supporting the ban.
The issue – chemicals in the sunscreen have been linked to coral bleaching and DNA mutations – was alarming to Montgomery, an undergraduate in the Department of Chemistry.
“The ocean has always been a huge part of my life,” she said. “And I feel like I’ve actually seen this in effect, because my family and I always go snorkeling on Maui. And, in the past couple of years, we have noticed that the colors are a lot less vibrant, and there is less marine life overall.”
Montgomery compared two mineral-based sunscreens (not implicated in the ban) with two chemical-based brands, all with the same claimed SPF values. She diluted the sunscreens in 70-percent isopropyl alcohol and measured their absorbancy, using those data to calculate SPF values. “All of my SPF values were lower than the manufacturer claims by more than 50 percent.”
Even so, Montgomery found the chemical-based products, which generally have a few organic compounds in their ingredients that absorb UV radiation, were still working as intended. The mineral-based products, which generally have one ingredient such as zinc oxide and work by providing a reflective barrier to the skin, were not.
Although disappointed with her findings, as she said she supports the idea of the ban, Montgomery hopes the industry can improve mineral-based sunscreens before a ban is implemented. “I would love to have a product out there that would be good for humans and the environment. However, right now with these data, it would not be very ethical to ban these sunscreens.”