Fishing for Insights into Obesity

Ester Yang ’15

Fish may be one key to combating obesity—though it’s their brain’s behavior when alive that matters, not the nutrition fish provide when consumed.

Since high school, Ester Yang ’15 has conducted scientific research, and for years she has studied the causes of obesity by using zebrafish as stand-ins for humans. Like people, zebrafish eat more high-fat “comfort food” when they’re stressed.  She wanted to know why.

This summer, Yang was part of a team, along with professors at Georgetown and Tulane Universities who mentored her, that offered zebrafish appealing food under high-stress and low-stress conditions, then recorded how much they ate.

They found that the brains of stressed-out fish released a specific neuropeptide called NPY that seems to prompt overeating.

“Our results suggest that NPY may be involved in the interplay between stress and obesity in zebrafish, and they appear to be a promising model organism,” Yang said.

She worked with the fish, analyzed the data, and cowrote the results for publication in the journal Behavioural Brain Research. The article argues that using zebrafish as stand-ins for humans in studies about obesity is as reliable as the more common practice of using mice for such experiments.

Yang was ready for this challenging opportunity—unusual for an undergraduate student—partly thanks to her MHC courses. They helped so much that she contacted biology professors Amy Camp and Craig Woodard this summer to thank them.

“Their classes gave me the strong foundation I needed to write the scientific paper and review,” she said. “In Amy’s Cell Biology course, we looked at how to read scientific articles effectively. Craig’s Genetics and Molecular Biology class helped me make connections between my animal models to human models.”

Yang is eager for more research opportunities before she heads to medical school after graduation.

—By Emily Harrison Weir