Elaine Chan ’14

by Robert Bradford

Elaine Chan

The Nobel Prize-winning biologist Sydney Brenner has argued great science is about a conversation—that science makes advances through the daily interactions of people focused on common and interesting problems.

That couldn’t be truer for Professor of Biology Zhaohua Irene Tang and one of her students, Elaine Chan ’14. Chan first met Professor Tang in a cell cycle class as a sophomore—Chan was inspired by the class and wanted to learn more about basic biological research. She has continued to work in Tang’s lab at the W.M. Keck Science Department of Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges, using single-cell yeast called S. pombe as a model organism to understand whether—and how—certain chemicals in the environment can have an effect on living organisms.

Scripps Magazine met with Tang and Chan recently to talk about the power of the undergraduate research experience at Scripps College.

What are the advantages of research and science in a liberal arts setting?

Irene Tang: I believe in the value of science education for all of our students. When we nurture the scientific way of thinking and problem-solving, we encourage openness to new ideas, whether our students are science majors or non-science majors. And when students are in a research setting, they can get a firsthand sense of how to approach complex problems.

Elaine Chan: The great thing about Scripps for me is it is part of a consortium, and we can take advantage of resources throughout the other colleges. I often come into contact with students who are interested in different fields of science, and we can collaborate and share ideas. We come from a perspective that values critical thinking and offers the opportunity for real research.

What is the question you are addressing in your research?

Chan: I’m looking at whether  two chemicals—BPA and BHT—can induce DNA damage in fission yeast and how these chemicals could affect the environment, which in turn would have an impact on human health. Our hypothesis is based on a great deal of work that has previously been done. BPA has been used to make plastic packaging and the linings of canned foods, and BHT is added to foods to preserve fats. I’m hoping we’ll obtain evidence for DNA damage induced by exposure to BPA and BHT. BPA has been banned in baby bottles and sippy cups, and its ongoing use is controversial.

Tang: One of the interesting elements of Elaine’s research is we’re taking advantage of interdisciplinary collaboration. We have worked with engineers at Harvey Mudd College to help analyze the effects of BPA and BHT through quantitative methods.

What are you learning about the scientific process as you pursue your research?

Chan: That there isn’t a manual! With an organic chemistry course, you have four hours to figure out how to solve a problem. With these projects, we learn to take ownership of what we do.

Tang: And that’s such an important part of the process. The mindset of research in a lab is so different from a course. The nature of research is we don’t know, and we must persevere to find the answers.

Chan: You learn to gain respect for what you do. It took an entire year for me to set up the parameters for the experiment and really understand the lab.

Tang: This is a student-managed lab, and I encourage students to take responsibility for all facets of it. They wash the beakers, organize the lab, and analyze their own experiments.

Have there been any “Aha!” moments in the lab?

Chan: The entire summer, I was looking for DNA damage, but I didn’t see any. One day I thought I saw a spot that could have been damage. I called Professor Tang and said, “Look at this!” She told me it was just a dust particle, and I needed to have the confidence to analyze changes for myself.

Tang: Elaine learned science is often about failure, and you need persistence to be a successful scientist.

Chan: That day really increased my confidence—having Professor Tang encourage me to analyze my own results has made me a better scientist. I plan to go to medical school, and my experience with basic research has only furthered my interest in pursuing a career as a physician.

What have you learned about each other outside of the lab?

Chan: As a lab, we often go out for lunch, and it’s great to hear Professor Tang talk about her daughter and her life in science. For me, these personal experiences capture one of best things about Scripps—the close relationships between professors and students. She is a great role model.

Tang: I have seen Elaine grow so much during the last two years. I know that no matter what she does, she will thrive.