Bad Blood

To Dr. Erica Unger, research is life. Her work, relating to iron deficiency in blood, spanned her pre-graduate and post-graduate years at Penn State, and continues in her time as a professor at Lebanon Valley. Already involved in three grants during her time at Penn State, Unger recently received an Arnold Grant [The Edward H. Arnold and Jeanne Donlevy Arnold Program for Experiential Education] to conduct additional research regarding dopamine levels and their relation to iron deficiency. Joining this veteran researcher in her work is Morgan Webb ’17, a biology major making her first transition from the classroom to the lab.

“In lectures, you hear about all of this research that’s been done and you don’t really appreciate how important that is until you get in the lab,” said Webb. “You don’t think about all of the extraneous things that can happen when you’re doing an experiment.”

Iron deficiency is an issue that can cause anxiety, depression, and even death if not treated properly. Unger has studied iron deficient humans and animals, noting decreased cognitive function in the latter. It is estimated that two to four billion people worldwide suffer from iron deficiency, and Unger describes it as “a big issue that isn’t given enough emphasis.” Having lost several family members to disorders related to the issue, she became interested in investigating the roots of the problem.

However, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“Research just doesn’t happen overnight,” said Webb. “This is a project that I plan on pursuing for a while.”

Laying the groundwork for this new project takes time and patience, as Webb soon learned. Any new data needed to match up properly with the data that Unger gathered during previous studies—and reaching the point where progress can be made—is often a struggle. Unger and Webb worked throughout the summer and plan on continuing their research into the future. In order to continue, Webb will take an independent study to complete the project. Fortunately, the Arnold Grant helped alleviate some of the financial burden of conducting such a study. 

Notably, Webb isn’t the only student assisting Unger with her research. Tim Monko ’15 and Emily Spurlin ’15 are also studying neurotransmitters and their relation to iron deficiency, with the pair presenting their findings at the recent Disappearing Boundaries conference, held on LVC’s campus each summer. Though the research appears similar, Unger emphasized the subtleties that set the two projects apart.

“What we’re trying to do is understand the biological underpinnings of certain behaviors,” said Unger. “In iron deficient animals, we often see anxiety, and the closest neurotransmitter system is the serotonin system. Emily is studying serotonin as it relates to this behavior, but Morgan is approaching it from a different angle by studying the dopamine system, which relates to cognition.”

For Webb, the experience of conducting formal research has forced her to adapt quickly. She notes that problem solving is one of the most important skills for her on the job, given the propensity for procedures to vary from original plans. However, with the amount that she’s learned over the last few months, she has been able to overcome these issues.

“Sometimes, you need to look at a procedure from a different angle and figure out the next step,” she said.

Webb presented her findings at the undergraduate research symposium at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.