University of Exeter logo

Research and Innovation blog

Home About Contact Toggle navigation Open menu

Zebrafish, extreme temperatures & the toxicity of pharmaceuticals in the natural world

20 June 2022

2 minutes to read

Zebrafish, extreme temperatures & the toxicity of pharmaceuticals in the natural world

Soapbox Science speaker Dr Rebekah Boreham is a Graduate Research Assistant in the College of Medicine and Health, having recently completed her Biosciences PhD, Rebekah explains how she has made the transition to focusing on biomedical research; using her experience using zebrafish to explore treatments for diabetes.

What is your background?

I have always been obsessed with biology and wildlife for as long as I can remember but, I didn’t consider a PhD until my undergrad final year research project at the University of Exeter. I thoroughly enjoyed conducting my own lab-based research and the project sparked a particular interest in ecotoxicology.

I am particularly fascinated in how animals interact with the physical world around them, and what happens when these interactions are disrupted by chemical pollution. My undergrad supervisor, Dr Eduarda Santos, therefore recommended me for the PhD with Professor Charles Tyler.

My PhD used genetically modified zebrafish and novel bioimaging tools to investigate the toxic effects caused by drugs that make their way into our rivers. I also looked at how these effects are influenced by different types of drugs, and what happens when they interact with extreme temperatures to better understand how changing conditions in the environment may affect the toxicity of the drugs.

What’s next for your research?

I have now completed my PhD and passed my viva with minor corrections, so in the immediate future I need to make a few adjustments to my thesis so I can finally graduate!

I then intend to re-write some of my chapters so they are fit for publishing as papers in a scientific journal. In particular, I have written a literature review on the use of genetically modified fish and imaging tools in ecotoxicology which needs a little more work before submission to a journal. Having reached the end of the PhD, I now have a better appreciation for the big-picture implications of my work so I’m also hoping to write up some of my experimental data for publication.

Career-wise, I have actually transitioned into biomedical research as I now work in a lab researching diabetes. Genetically modified zebrafish are also a hugely popular tool in this field so many of the skills I developed in my PhD have surprisingly transferred very well to my new project, where I use fish models to investigate neural signalling of the pancreas.

What are the best and worst things about your field of work?

The best thing about my work was the zebrafish; the images I was able to produce using glow-in-the-dark zebrafish larvae were fascinating to study and I love the satisfaction of producing such visually impactful images.

Unfortunately, the worst thing about this field would also have to be the fish! As with any animal research, it can get quite frustrating when the fish don’t behave as you plan them to. In particular, there are often times when the fish just don’t feel like giving me any eggs that day so I can’t start an experiment, or a particular batch of larvae behave completely differently to all the other batches for no discernible reason! On the bright side, the this has encouraged me to become more flexible in my work and I am now comfortable adjusting plans on the go so I can make the most of what I have and minimise time wasted.

Dr Boreham spoke at the 2022 Soapbox Science event in a talk entitled “Fish on painkillers: More than just a headache”.
Find out more about the event here:
Soapbox Science Exeter



Back home