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Quillen Medical Student Wins Prestigious Award For Her Research of Snake Embryo Development
Start Date: 6/6/2012Start Time: 9:00 AM
End Date: 6/6/2012End Time: 10:00 AM

Event Description:
A student at East Tennessee State University’s James H. Quillen College of Medicine recently received a prestigious national award for her investigation of how deprivation of eggshell calcium affects the development of corn snake embryos.

Whitney Trotter Ross earned the second place Scholander Award, given to the most outstanding young comparative physiology student at the annual Experimental Biology meeting. Competition for the Scholander Award is traditionally dominated by graduate students and researchers serving a post-doctoral fellowship. Ross was the only medical student competing in her category.

A third-year medical student, Ross began the project as an undergraduate researcher in the ETSU Honors College. She has focused on the embryonic development of the corn snake, a common, docile reptile that reproduces by laying eggs. To test the hypothesis that eggshell calcium is required for full development, Ross literally peeled away the outer shell, leaving behind only a thin inner membrane to keep the egg intact.

Lacking the leathery shell, those embryos still became hatchling snakes. From there, Ross began getting answers that led to her poster presentation. Her ETSU faculty collaborators were Dr. Tom Ecay, a professor of physiology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the College of Medicine; Dr. James Stewart, a senior research scientist in the Department of Biological Sciences; and Dr. Rebecca Pyles, dean of the Honors College.

“Once we removed the eggshell and showed the hatchlings could survive,” Ross said, “we had some basic questions to answer. We had expected that removing the shell might cause their skeletal systems to be slightly underossified, but we didn’t expect to find that the outer eggshell was such a significant factor in regulating development.

“The shell has some relevance in regulating the length and mass of embryos. This suggests that the shell may be playing an endocrine-like role in development, which was a big surprise.”

Ecay said Ross’ project could provide insights into reptile species with differing reproductive patterns.

“While most snake species are oviparous, or egg-laying, some have developed viviparity, which is the ability to give birth to live young,” Ecay said. “The latter species don’t have eggshell calcium to support embryonic development and in its place use a form of placental nutrition analogous to mammals. The origins and mechanisms of live birth and placental function are fundamental questions in reproductive biology.”

The Scholander Award, which is given by the Comparative and Evolutionary Physiology section of the American Physiology Society, is the latest marker that underscores the relevance of Ross’ research. Last year, she received an Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) Student Research Fellowship. Ross has also received support from the Honors College.

“In addition to feeling very surprised, excited and humbled [by the Scholander Award], I also felt a tremendous sense of fulfillment,” Ross said. “For the past five years, this project has been really, really important to me. But there was no way to know if others would see it as such. Then AOA gave me a research fellowship, and physiologists at Experimental Biology chose my poster out of a pool of strong applicants.

“These were huge affirmations that my project holds importance and value, not only to those in the lab group, but also to the greater medical and physiological communities.”
Contact Information:
Email: lifford@etsu.edu
Whitney Trotter Ross investigates corn snake embryonic development
Remarks:
student at East Tennessee State University’s James H. Quillen College of Medicine recently received a prestigious national award for her investigation of how deprivation of eggshell calcium affects the development of corn snake embryos.

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