Elissa Tam ‘22, a biology major, decided in her junior year she wanted to get involved in research. To Tam, this meant not only an opportunity for her to learn skills to help her succeed as a scientist, but it also offered skills and experiences that couldn’t be learned solely in a traditional classroom if she was to achieve her goal of becoming a physician. She became involved in research after talking to Dr. Alex Champagne, Associate Professor of Biology. He studies lipids in different species’ skin. Together they began their journey of studying the lipids in alligator skin samples.
Skin lipids play a major role in preventing animals from drying out because they act as a natural barrier to water. These lipids allow animals and humans to not lose copious amounts of water which could lead to dehydration. Tam and Champagne sought to uncover the different types of lipid classes alligators have and determine how much of each lipid type is present in their skin. This allowed them to compare the role of different lipid classes between alligators and other species Champagne has studied, such as birds and bats. Studying skin lipids in alligators allows insights into the evolution of skin barriers which can then help solve real problems for animals—such as their responses to climate changes and clinical treatment of abnormal human skin conditions.
This research began in the summer of 2021 with frozen alligator skin samples that Champagne’s friend, Frank “Alligator” Robb, collected. The process started by separating the layers of the alligator skin and then extracting lipids to be run on a thin-layer chromatography plate. The lipids then separated on the plate and showed up as different bands for corresponding lipid classes, differentiated by polarity. It took Tam a long time to interpret the brown bands from the lipids on the plate and just as long to get these bands to show up in a clean and accurate way. She learned the importance of not being perfect the first time and not giving up. Now, Tam is confidentially running her own plates.
Tam plans to attend medical school after she graduates from USI. She believes this research experience taught her patience. Besides the lesson of patience, Tam says, “My favorite lesson from spending time in the lab with Dr. Champagne is to always celebrate your wins (even if they’re small), because science is always messy.” Tam and Champagne plan to continue work on their research through the Fall and Spring Semesters. The main goal for them is to present at the USI Endeavors Symposium and a science conference. For now, they will continue to bring alligator skin results to the field of scientific research.