Alumna's research exposing dangers of designer drugs

Release Date: 7/13/2012

Amy Patton continues to shine. Patton, who graduated from Ozarks last year with a B.S. in biology on the pre-med track, is currently an Environmental Public Health Fellow at the Arkansas Department of Health Public Health Laboratory.

Academically, she is thriving as well. She attends University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in Little Rock in the Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences program. "It allows the student to pursue an academic foundation in the core sciences while allowing for training across multiple disciplines of biomedical research," she said. "It provides a way to combine physical, chemical, and biological sciences into one program."

Amy Patton

Ozarks alum Amy Patton is currently an Environmental Public Health Fellow at the Arkansas Department of Health Public Health Laboratory.

She described last semester as very challenging - "as with any graduate program" - but said she feels like she has truly learned a lot and can't wait for her classes next semester. "I am on track to complete the coursework by May of next year," she said, "and I hope to have my thesis completed around that time as well." 

Patton described her position at the Public Health Laboratory as a two-year fellowship, funded by the Association of Public Health Laboratories.  "They provide the salary and benefits, and the Arkansas Public Health Laboratory serves as my 'host laboratory,' " Patton said. "I am in my 10th month here, and have enjoyed every minute of it." 

As a fellow, Patton says she gets to work on important projects that the laboratory would not ordinarily have the time, money, or manpower to complete. 

"My first project here studied the effects of tobacco smoke on the level of biotin in pregnant women," she said. "Biotin is a vitamin that one can normally get in a regular diet, and a biotin deficiency during pregnancy has been linked to fetal birth defects.  So this project analyzed urine samples of over 600 women to compare biotin levels of smokers and non-smokers." 

Her work has recently become even more interesting. "Lately, most of my time has been devoted to analysis of clinical specimens, such as blood and urine, for the new 'designer drugs' that are commonly referred to as K2 and Bath Salts," Patton said. "As an undergraduate intern at the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, I began research on K2 in 2010, and since the beginning of my fellowship here at the Public Health Laboratory, I have been able to continue this research, though more from a clinical perspective than a product-testing perspective." 

This work has allowed Patton to collaborate with other institutions and major companies, including UAMS, Arkansas Children's Hospital, Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, where she interned two summers ago in forensic chemistry, Cayman Chemical, and Arkansas Poison Control Center. "An important aspect of my research that goes beyond the walls of the laboratory is the community education," she said. "My boss and mentor and I have travelled around the state to give educational presentations to a wide variety of audiences, including mayors, law enforcement officials, school counselors, anti-drug coalitions, teachers, and parents. We inform them of the growing problem of these drugs and the dangers associated with them.  The fellowship has provided me with a well-rounded training platform that allows me to learn and grow as an analytical scientist."

Patton says probably the most important take-home message from her current research is that drugs that are marketed as "safe marijuana" and are believed to be a comparable alternative to the "hard drugs" people most often associate with drug abuse are, in fact, very dangerous and can lead to harmful, even fatal, consequences.  "I have a paper submitted for consideration of publication in Journal of Forensic Sciences that documents my work in confirming the first death case in the state related to K2 use," she said.

Patton is not shy about her interests. "I could go on for days about my research," she said. "I truly have a passion for what I am doing.  I look forward to the rest of my fellowship and my upcoming projects."