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Professor’s research finds answers to practical problems

Published: May 17th, 2012

Category: Spotlights

Nancy Denslow

Nancy Denslow

Professor of Physiological Sciences

College of Veterinary Medicine

As the child of a U.S. diplomat, College of Veterinary Medicine professor Nancy Denslow spent her early years jumping from school to school — from Mexico City, where she was born, to Quito, Ecuador, and Istanbul, Turkey, before returning to the states with her family and spending her last two years of high school in Virginia. There, she discovered chemistry and what would become a lifelong love of science and research.

By the time she graduated as a chemistry major from what was then known as Mary Washington College, Denslow had an internship at the National Institutes of Health and two publications. She also had presented her honors research at a local American Chemical Society meeting. After receiving a master’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from Yale University, she took a hiatus.

“As most women at the time, I wasn’t sure I could handle being married, having children and having a job as a scientist, so I quit, got married and had my first child,” said Denslow, a professor of physiological sciences at the Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology. Her husband, David, accepted a faculty position at UF, where he is now a professor of economics.

After moving to Gainesville, Denslow recommitted to her scientific love and enrolled in the doctoral program in the College of Medicine’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology.

“I had a great time learning how to do research and studying about mitochondrial ribosomes and raising a family,” said Denslow, who had a second daughter soon after completing her doctorate. A short time later, she became the technical director of the Proteomics Core of the Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology. She introduced mass spectrometry technology and created new methods for helping researchers with questions about proteins. She soon started the ICBR’s Biomarkers Core Facility and began offering a sophisticated service for protein analysis known as two dimensional (2D) gel electrophoresis.

One of her first clients, an investigator from the Environmental Protection Agency’s laboratory in Gulf Breeze, Fla., brought fish that had been exposed to poly aromatic hydrocarbons and other endocrine compounds and had a type of liver cancer.

“He wanted me to analyze their blood for potential biomarkers,” Denslow said. “We did, and found vitellogenin, the egg yolk protein responsive to estrogen, had been induced in male fish. This suggested that some of the contaminants were estrogen-like and were inducing male fish to produce female-specific proteins.

The significance of the finding changed her research path.

“We were among the first to document the problem of estrogens in the U.S. waterways with wild fish,” Denslow said.

She said the research fascinated her because it was fundamental and basic yet resolved a real issue and thus it was easy to see its practical application. Denslow is now known for pioneering the introduction of molecular approaches to ecotoxicology.

She received the Pfizer Award for Research Excellence from UF in 2007 and was named a UF Research Foundation professor in 2009. She co-founded two startup companies at the Biotechnology Development Institute.

What she most enjoys at UF is working with students, postdoctoral associates and staff.

“It is especially fun to solve a new problem or get new answers to issues that are facing us all in the environment,” Denslow said.

Writer: Sarah Carey

Photographer: Eric Zamora

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