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Serrine Lau, TOXICOLOGIST, Tucson, Arizona

Serrine Lau

"Don't just sit in the dark wondering what comes next. Instead of panicking, get more information."

What She's Doing

Chemicals get a bad rap these days. They bring to mind greenhouse gas-clogged skies and polluted rivers, poisons that destroy our environment and give us cancer.

But not all chemicals are harmful. Some are good for us-even essential to our survival. Caffeine and sugar are beneficial chemicals in our food, as is the folic acid that enriches our bread and prevents certain birth defects. In fact, the word "chemical" simply refers to any substance that's involved in, or created by, a chemical reaction. There are so many chemicals all around us—whether good or bad or neutral—that scientists don't yet know what they all are.

Hong Kong
University of Arizona, Tucson
The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean's 13
Medical doctor
Desert Museum, Gem Show, hiking at Sabino Canyon and Saguaro National Park, bird watching, Kitt Peak National Observatory, Mt. Lemmon, Old Tucson Studios and the Tombstone Epitaph

As a toxicologist, Serrine Lau is interested in knowing more about chemicals that damage human health. She studies how different chemicals enter, travel through and exit our bodies. That includes looking at where the chemicals congregate or get processed. For instance, tobacco does the most damage to the mouth, lungs and bladder.

But Lau doesn't study those chemicals alone. She also looks at tiny variations in our DNA that influence whether we get sick when we're exposed to toxins in the environment. She hopes to not only understand how our bodies process specific chemicals, but also find the genes that make us more or less likely to be hurt by them.

Her Findings

Lau specializes in polyphenols, a group of chemicals found in cigarette smoke, car exhaust, some depigmentation cosmetics and other substances. Polyphenols have been linked to kidney cancer in some people.

Because she can't give polyphenols to people, Lau studies them in rats. She measures kidney cancer rates in rats exposed to a strong polyphenol, and then compares the cancerous rats' genes to those of people who are susceptible to the same cancer type. Lau has found changes in DNA that may affect whether tumors grow in our kidneys.

Read more about Lau in "Chemical World."

Meet a Chemist


This page last reviewed on April 22, 2011