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COSAM professor studies lifelong effects of stressors during development through $1 million NSF CAREER Award

Published: 02/16/2017

By: Lindsay Penny

Video by: Phillip Coxwell

Haruka Wada, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, is scientifically proving the old adage, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

“We think we know stress or stressors because we feel them everyday, we talk about it everyday, but when it comes to the physiology of stress, there are a lot of unknowns, and this is partly because how we respond to stress depends on what we’re feeling that day,” said Wada. “The way you perceive a physical, physiological or psychological stress is also influenced by what you’re currently going through and previous exposure to a similar stressor, including during childhood.”

Her project, “Proteostasis to Allostasis: Integration of Cellular and Organismal-Level Stress Responses,” will critically evaluate how a stress response is regulated while improving scientists’ understanding of stress responses at both the organismal and cellular level. The study is made possible through a five-year, $1,018,132 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.

Scientists have long studied stress responses at the organismal level and cellular level separately, but the connection between the two levels is unknown. Wada will investigate how those levels link together, and how stress responses change with a previous exposure to a stressor and developmental conditions.

Wada and her team are currently using heat conditioning, a mild stressor applied to juvenile zebra finches the team is raising, as a way to increase stress tolerance in adulthood. For a month, the birds are exposed to mild heat stress for a few hours each day. As the birds become adults, they are exposed to higher levels of heat stress and are able to better tolerate those higher levels.

“So, the question is, what are the physiological changes that allow them to tolerate those stressors later on in life?” said Wada. “In simpler terms, the physiology of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We often consider being under stress as a negative thing, but being under moderate amounts of stress can have positive effects, such as enhancing memory or immune function.”

Though there are benefits of short-term, moderate stress, prolonged stress can cause long-term elevation of adrenalin and cortisol, which can lead to high blood pressure and suppressed growth, reproductive, immune and memory functions.

“Low socioeconomic status is a common stressor in our region and often correlates with unhealthy lifestyle choices such as tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of physical exercise and unhealthy dietary choices,” said Wada. “Those lifestyle and dietary choices increase the risk for hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.”

As part of her CAREER Award, Wada will work with the College of Sciences and Mathematics’ STEM-IQ program. The program trains middle and high school teachers from rural areas within the southeast region of Alabama to promote participation in science fairs and enhance the overall quality of science projects.

Wada is developing a module to educate students about stress and ways to cope with daily stressors. She will also open her lab to teachers and students to help them conduct research and prepare for science fairs.

“This research is something I’ve always wanted to do and the CAREER Award actually allows me to do it, so it’s really an exciting opportunity,” said Wada. “I can utilize the finch colony to tackle something that I’ve wanted to investigate for a long time. I’m a stress physiologist by training, and the results of this research will, I hope, make a big difference in our field.”

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