Converse Soy Research Project Makes Headlines
***This article appeared in the July 6th edition of the Spartanburg Herald Journal and was written and photographed by Gary Glancy***
Jeremiah was a bullfrog. Had he consumed a diet high in soy, however, Jeremiah might have become Geraldine.
That’s what two students at Converse College are attempting to find out. Not necessarily with regard to Jeremiah — the amphibian referenced in the opening line of Three Dog Night’s 1971 hit song, “Joy to the World” — but all frogs. And, potentially, humans.
Kaleea Lewis, a rising senior from Columbia, and Lauren Jurgensen, a rising junior from Spartanburg, are studying the effects of phytoestrogens on the sexual development of frogs as their summer research project.
Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring plant compounds that produce estrogen-type properties, Lewis explained. Estrogen is a hormone necessary for childbearing and is involved with bone and heart health in women. But research that Lewis has read about has shown that phytoestrogens in their pure form have been linked to physical deformities, greatly altered sexual development and eventually death in frogs exposed to phytoestrogens both in their natural and in clinical environments.
Lewis, who proposed the project after writing a 20-page research paper on the subject for her research methods course, has particular interest in the study because she is a vegetarian, and soy products are one of the major dietary sources of phytoestrogens. “They say you are what you eat,” Lewis said. “So, what are we eating?”
That’s a question Lewis and Jurgensen, who said she often drinks soy milk — along with many family members who are lactose intolerant — hope their project can help find answers to. “I didn’t think (the project) would really lead to much just based on the fact that there has been research done before,” Jurgensen said, “but I think if people heard about it, they might think more about their diet or about the environment.”
Each day throughout the summer, Lewis and Jurgensen will feed three experimental groups and one control group of tadpoles varying diets. One group is consuming pure phytoestrogen; one is being fed a human dietary supplement — which contains refined, diluted versions of phytoestrogens — that Lewis purchased from an online health-food store; while another group is getting a soluble form of the supplement. Once the tadpoles turn into frogs, they’ll dissect them and look for deformities or abnormalities in sexual development.
Lewis said she read a study about one lake in the Midwest where a manufacturer of soy products had dumped waste containing pure phytoestrogens, and researchers found male frogs living in the lake were producing excessive amounts of estrogen and had developed ovaries, while females were producing large amounts of testosterone and had developed testies. Frogs eventually became “extinct” from the lake, Lewis said.
Lewis and Jurgensen, both biology majors, know that all of this doesn’t necessarily mean there are dangers associated with human soy products, but they hope their project will lead to bigger, more advanced studies.
Carole Mabry, a registered dietician at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center, said her staff doesn’t discourage clients from incorporating soy in their diet. However, “Anything in excess can be (detrimental),” she said, “and so even with people who eat meat, we encourage them to get their protein from different sources.”
Mabry said research has indicated soy might cause problems for women with breast cancer or women who are prone to it because of phytoestrogens, and that children who consume large amounts of soy might experience puberty a little earlier than most.
Still, Mabry stressed that soy can be a healthy choice when consumed as one of several dietary sources. She said studies such as the one Lewis and Jurgensen are conducting, however, can be valuable. “It would be interesting to get more information about it and see if there truly is some link (between phytoestrogens and health issues),” Mabry said, “because we’re always learning more, so I think it’s an opportunity to find out more about an area that we may not be well-informed on.”
The Converse pair’s project — supervised by biology professor Edna Steele — is one of eight diverse research projects going on this summer at the college. Seven of the eight are being funded by a grant from the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities consortium, with Converse having received the largest amount of grants and grant money among the 20 member institutions for the third year in a row.
Lewis said her project will be a great stepping stone for graduate school, where she wants to continue research in the field of public health. Jurgensen, who is interested in teaching, said she hopes the project will inspire other Converse students to develop their own unique research ideas.