Biochem Major Conducts Independent Research with Anatomy, Anthropology and Chemistry Applications

When Julianna Nichols waits for a pot of salt solution to boil in a Seton Hill laboratory, she’s researching ways to better use cadaver bones to tell scientists more about who their donors were and how they lived.

As the inaugural recipient of a scholarship from the Audrey Fedyszyn Jakubowski Lazarus Basic Science Fund for Women, which funds undergraduate research for female Seton Hill students, the senior biochemistry major is working on an independent research project with applications to the fields of anatomy, anthropology and chemistry.

“This is a new method to remove soft tissue from cadavers,” Nichols said, who is working on her Honors Capstone Research Project. “The method could be expanded from animals to human cadavers - people who have donated their bodies to science - so the bones are not affected in composition or appearance.”

Nichols noted that most bone collections available for research are from marginalized people – the poor, elderly, and mentally ill - who died in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their bodies often were left unclaimed, and the law permitted their use for scientific research.

“Bone collections began to grow as studying bones became applicable to anthropology, medicine, dentistry and evolutionary biology,” she said.

As laws changed, strict guidelines were set for the scientific use of cadavers. Obtaining them became more difficult, limiting the contents in bone repositories to skeletons – and the stories they tell – gathered more than a century ago.

“These types of projects definitely draw me – the novelty of the project and to see what I can do in the field.”

Nichols wants to help build “a modern collection of bones that could better reflect the lives and circumstances of more contemporary people.”

Today, the only legal source for new experimental bone acquisition is individuals who have donated their bodies to science. However, bodies prepared for cadaver research are chemically preserved, preventing the use of known methods to access the bones - like household bleach - without altering them. Nichols’ goal is to find a method that doesn’t affect the composition or appearance of bones, allowing scientists use of the whole body.

“A cadaver could be used by physician assistant students for their anatomy classes and then the bones could be studied by anthropology students,” Nichols said.

One method she’s trying is boiling animal cadavers in a salt solution in hopes that it could be applied to human bones.

Little research on the topic exists, but Nichols enjoys the challenge.

“My advisor’s (Dr. Bobbie Leeper) dissertation involved work to try to remove soft tissue from bones. When you research the topic, hers is the first name that comes up. It is a very specific field,” Nichols said.

“These types of projects definitely draw me – the novelty of the project and to see what I can do in the field.”

For a budding scientist, Seton Hill alumna Dr. Audrey Fedyszyn Jakubowski Lazarus ’64 is an excellent role model, Nichols said.

“When I learned her story, I was very impressed by how many similarities there were between her life and how well this award seemed to fit me,” she said. “This is the kind of person we are looking for today as a role model because of her accomplishments and the contributions she has made here and internationally.”

The Audrey Fedyszyn Jakubowski Lazarus Basic Science Fund for Women was created in 2019 with a significant leadership gift from Dr. Jakubowski Lazarus and her husband, Gerald S. Lazarus, M.D. The fund provides financial assistance to female junior and senior students at Seton Hill majoring in chemistry, biochemistry and mathematics so that they may immerse themselves in hands-on collaborative scientific research under the guidance of a Seton Hill faculty member. Dr. Jakubowski Lazarus, a Seton Hill Distinguished Alumna, earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the State University of New York at Buffalo and spent her career in leadership roles for major pharmaceutical companies, including Bristol Myers Inc., DuPont Merck and SuperGen. While working for SuperGen, she lived in China for three years where she served as a visiting professor at Peking Union Medical College.

Nichols sees China, where she was born, and family as personal links to Dr. Lazarus. “(My mother) has always been my biggest support, beginning 21 years ago when she adopted me from a Chinese orphanage to raise me by herself,” Nichols told Dr. Lazarus in a thank-you letter. 

“I am also deeply inspired by your story of being a single mother who created a successful career for yourself while also providing for your children.”

Nichols plans to work as a clinical pharmacist but finds research compelling, too. “I’m also looking at which fields I would go into if I ended up doing research,” she said.

She was accepted into North Dakota State University Summer Undergrad Research Experience (SURE) and worked in a lab last summer with a host doctor who is making adhesives from plant oils to ease reliance on petroleum-based projects.

“This adhesive could be used on substrates and you would see if it was comparable with other leading adhesives that are on the market. Some were competitive, if not better than, petroleum-based ones,” Nichols said. “It was a wonderful experience.”

This story originally appeared in Seton Hill’s alumni magazine, Forward. View the digital version of Forward here.