Chris Kassotis ’08’s Circuitous Route to a Very Specific Biology Career
Today, Dr. Christopher D. Kassotis ’08 is a postdoctoral research associate at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He’s just wrapping up a major research project on the chemicals used in fracking and their potential impact on the endocrine systems in humans and animals. That’s a pretty specific and focused career, but the route he took to get himself there took several turns.
Kassotis started out as a marine biology major at the University of Rhode Island, realized that wasn’t what he wanted, and transferred to Keene State. “I took a variety of classes my first year, then did a year of music education,” he remembered. Then he took Dr. Susan Whittemore’s class, Comparative Animal Physiology. “She did a section on endocrine disrupting chemicals that immediately hooked me,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to do something related to that moving forward.”
But since it took him so long to settle on a major in biology, he had to cram a lot of upper-level biology and chemistry courses into his last couple of years at Keene State. It was a grueling schedule. “He really struggled in the biology program, which makes his story all the more amazing and inspiring,” Dr. Whittemore recalled. “He got hooked on a phenomenon and that hook stayed with him and provided motivation to really work hard.”
Even after graduation, Kassotis’ career path wasn’t clear. “While I was interested in pursuing a PhD in endocrinology, I knew I needed a break after a rough path through college,” he said. “Most everyone told me that if I left school I wouldn’t come back, but Dr. Hannah Kolodziejski, whose class on neuroendocrinology also fascinated me, challenged me to prove them wrong, and suggested various lab/research technician positions that would give me some of the research experience I lacked. They would better prepare me for grad school, but would also get me out in the real world and away from school for a bit. I ended up accepting a job as a chemist in NJ, where I got a lot of basic lab experience that served me extremely well in grad school.”
What are Endocrine Disruptors?
The endocrine system is a system of communication through hormones – think the chemical messengers of the body – that regulate a host of different developmental and maintenance processes. Precise amounts and timing of hormones at specific points in an animal’s or human’s development (e.g., gestation or puberty) are critical to proper development, and maintain such processes as bone/muscle formation and maintenance, cell proliferation, fertility, immune regulation, etc.
Endocrine disrupting compounds are chemicals in the environment (including pharmaceuticals, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and personal care products) that can mimic or block the action of natural hormones. Exposure to these chemicals has been connected to many adverse health outcomes in humans and animals, including obesity, cancer, and reproductive and developmental abnormalities. So these chemicals (and hormones) act by binding to hormone receptors in various tissues throughout the body and interfere with the normal hormone action.
Dr. Kassotis found that common fracking chemicals prevented receptor activation in human cells. By testing the surface and ground water near fracking regions, he found chemicals in some places at levels sufficient to disrupt reproduction and/or development in fish and amphibians. He also exposed pregnant mice to a mixture of 23 commonly used fracking chemicals and found numerous adverse health effects in their offspring, including increased body weights, impacted fertility, altered heart development, and other problems.
“We definitely are doing pretty unique work,” he said. “There have been other labs that have assessed the endocrine activity associated with conventional oil and gas operations in the past, but we’re the only ones I have seen so far that have published on fracking. There are at least two other labs that I have seen working on the issue at conferences, and we have formed collaborations now with numerous other labs to assess various facets of our animal and water-quality projects, so it’s certainly expanding.”