Superfund Research Program
Elana Elkin, Ph.D., is the 22nd recipient of the Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award. Presented November 19 at the 2019 SRP Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington, the award honors a graduate or postdoctoral researcher demonstrating scientific excellence. Elkin's research examines how exposure to environmental contaminants may affect placental development and function, a common precursor to adverse birth outcomes such as preterm birth.
Elkin is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan. She is also a trainee at Northeastern University's Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, a multi-institution collaboration that includes the University of Michigan. She works under Rita Loch-Caruso, Ph.D., a reproductive toxicologist at the University of Michigan who runs one of the few labs dedicated to studying the placenta as a target of toxicity. Elkin's work contributes to the SRP Center's goal of understanding possible causes of – and solutions to – high preterm birth rates observed in Puerto Rico.
"Under Loch-Caruso's expert guidance, I rapidly gained expertise designing experiments with cell cultures and animals, as well as laboratory techniques measuring biological and genetic endpoints," said Elkin.
Puerto Rico's Superfund sites are commonly contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), a chemical used in solvents, adhesives, and paint removers. Elkin studied a chemical that is a breakdown product of TCE, formed in the body during metabolism, and the effect it has on human placental cells.
She found this breakdown product stimulated cell death by activating two metabolic pathways. She also found that mitochondria in the cell played two key roles in cell death, both as a target for toxicity and as a regulator of cell death. By identifying these mechanisms, her work explains how TCE exposure may lead to pregnancy complications and preterm birth.
"Elana has proved to be among the very best of the Ph.D. students I have mentored and known during my 32-year career at the University of Michigan," said Loch-Caruso. "She has a record of outstanding academic achievement, cutting-edge and impactful research, nationally recognized scientific presentation skills, and leadership and service."
In addition to her postdoctoral research, Elkin works for a Wayne State University startup that isolates placental cells from the cervix for use in research and prenatal testing services. In the future, she hopes to work as a toxicologist for a government agency to gain experience in environmental health policy. Ultimately, she hopes to return to academia to mentor and educate the next generation of toxicologists and placental biologists.
"Through her many accomplishments and activities so early in her career, Elana is a model for all of our trainees," said PROTECT SRP Center Director Akram Alshawabkeh, Ph.D. "She holds tremendous potential to be an outstanding environmental health leader."