The tougher and more complex a problem, the more Elizabeth Plunk wants to tackle it.
She admits it sometimes can be an aggravating personality trait.
“I get mad at myself whenever I put myself in those positions, but …,” said Plunk, who graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2019 with a degree in biology.
She’s done it again in her pursuit of a Ph.D. at the University of Rochester in New York. She’s now in the midst of researching a question that, as far as she can tell, hasn’t been researched before.
Specifically, she’s researching perfluorohexanoic acid, one of a family of similar compounds called PFAS, an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says there may be more than 14,000 separate PFAS. Some are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down over time.
PFAS of all types are ever-present in the world, used in everything from non-stick cookware to stain-resistant fabric to grease-resistant food packaging. The EPA has classified some of them as toxic to humans and animals.
The PFAS Plunk’s research is focused on hasn’t been designated as dangerous, but that may be because no one has studied it, she said.
“I picked it because no one knew anything about it, and I’m starting to realize that that was a challenging approach that I took,” she said.
Plunk is studying the type of PFAS used, among other applications, in flame-retardant materials used by firefighters, but it’s also been found in face masks worn during the COVID-19 pandemic and waterproof makeup.
Fascinated with neuroscience—the study of the brain and the nervous system—Plunk is interested in whether this particular PFAS can affect brain growth in infants and young children. When she looked for previous research on the topic, she didn’t find any, and her work began.
Dr. Sean Richards is a professor in the Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science and the instructor Plunk credits with her focus on a toxicology career. He said he’s not surprised she picked a difficult research project.
“Elizabeth was a patient student who did not shy away from hard work. Even if she thought it was hard—or perhaps unreasonable, she just put her head down and did the work and did the work well,” Richards said.
Plunk said she’s not trying to solve a specific problem. She’s not even sure there is a problem. The chemical may have no effect on the brain at all. She’s just trying to gather enough scientific evidence to say one way or the other, supporting information needs of health care professionals to make informed decisions, she said.
“There has not been research showing either way,” she said.
Richards called Plunk’s research “novel, especially the types of toxic responses she is addressing and the specific toxicant.”
“Her research is very timely and relevant and could ultimately even contribute to environmental exposure policy and law,” he said.
Growing up in Martin, Tennessee, Plunk spent her first year of college at UT Martin, but the university didn’t have something she wanted—a rowing team.
“I wanted to row, so I just ended up transferring to UTC,” she said.
Plunk also was a nursing major at UT Martin. That didn’t take, and once at UTC, she changed her major to biology, thinking that might lead to a career in dentistry. That didn’t take either. Then she tried occupational therapy.
“It’s very clear that I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she said.
Her decision to pursue toxicology as a career came in her senior year when she took Richards’ toxicology course.
“I heard toxicology was the hardest course on campus, so I took it,” Plunk said,” and on the first class I knew that that’s what I wanted to do.”
About four years into her doctoral research project, she’s 18 months or so away from a Ph.D. However long it takes, she said she will continue to work in neuroscience in some capacity.
While she’s currently researching one type of compound, many others need investigation, including for their potential roles in such diseases as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s Syndrome.
“I really don’t see myself leaving,” she said.