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Biology students lead way in first-of-its-kind research

February 21, 2019

It’s understandable that Dr. Sara Heggland of The College of Idaho’s Biology department is smiling just a little bit broader these days.

A recent paper published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology on e-cigarette research done largely at The College of Idaho has begun to blaze new trails on the toxicity of e-cigarettes on human bone cells.

“A lot of people will say why bone? We study bone and I think it is noteworthy to say that, if you look at traditional tobacco use, there’s plenty of evidence to show that smoking cigarettes is linked to the pathogenesis of osteoporosis. There’s a link between tobacco and bone disease,” Heggland noted. “So, then you start to think about e-cigarettes, can that affect bone? No one else has looked at it. We’re the first people to publish on it.”

And what did Heggland and the students in her lab inside of Boone Hall (with some help from the Biomolecular Research Center at Boise State) find?

Put simply, toxicity in human bone cells is closely related to the flavoring of the e-cigarettes and not necessarily the nicotine.

“The toxicity seems to be independent of the nicotine,” Heggland said. “It has more to do with flavors.”

Heggland said the two flavorings that seemed to have the highest toxicity were menthol and cinnamon.  Fruity and dessert-themed flavorings were less toxic.

“We’re very proud of the paper we just published,” Heggland said. “We think that the work that we’ve put out there now will help other researchers who are interested in looking at the flavorings of e-cigarettes.”

A great deal of the work in this research was done by College of Idaho undergraduate students. Recent graduates Claire Otero ‘18, Jacob Noeker ‘18 and Maggie Brown ‘17 are listed on the paper. That trio has advanced onto post-graduate opportunities. Otero is pursuing her Ph.D in medical pathology at Duke University, Noeker is doing a post-baccalaureate research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, and Brown is in medical school at the University of Washington. Yet another co-author, Wendy Harvey ’03, is an alumna and went on to receive her Master’s degree in Biology from Boise State University.  Harvey is now an adjunct Biology professor at the College.

Also listed on the paper is current College of Idaho senior Flo Wavreil, a biology major.

“It’s such an opportunity as an undergraduate to do this,” Wavreil, a native of Belgium, said. “Back home, you would not get that opportunity as an undergraduate student.”

“One great thing about The College of Idaho is the students are involved from the very beginning,” Heggland said of the group’s research, which included designing, conducting experiments, and conducting statistical analyses on the project, which started completely from scratch. “They are there from the start to the finish, with the finish being we got this (paper) published.”

Being published by the Journal of Applied Toxicology isn’t the end of the work for Heggland and her students. Wavreil, who has been working with Heggland for two years on this project, has expanded on the research for her Biology Honors project. She will be presenting research specifically on the toxicology of cinnamon e-liquids at a Society of Toxicology annual conference in Baltimore next month.  The conference will be filled with presentations from the FDA, doctors and Ph.D. candidates. Wavreil will be one of only a few undergraduate students with an opportunity to present at the conference.

“This national conference will be a lot of experts and people who have been doing research for years,” Wavreil said. “It’s going to be interesting to step up another level.”

And there will be more expansion, more research done on the topic at The College of Idaho in the future.

“We just keep working on it,” Heggland said. “We answered one question and now we have a hundred more questions.”

The project described was supported by an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Grant #P20GM103408.

The College of Idaho has a 128-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit