By Sarah Carey
As the child of a U .S. diplomat, UF College of Veterinary Medicine professor Nancy Denslow’s early childhood was spent jumping from school to school — from Mexico City, where she was born, to Quito, Ecuador and Instanbul, Turkey before returning to the states with her family and settling in to her last two years of high school in Virginia. It was there that she discovered chemistry, and what would become a lifelong love of science and research.
By the time she graduated – as a chemistry major — from Mary Washington College, Denslow had an internship at the National Institutes of Health under her belt, along with two publications. She also had presented her honors research at a local American Chemical Society meeting. She then attended Yale University for a master’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, and decided to take a hiatus.
“As most women at the time, I wasn’t sure I could handle being married, having children and having a job as a scientist, so I quit, got married and had my first child,” said Denslow, a professor of physiological sciences and at UF’s Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology. Her husband, David Denslow, eventually accepted a faculty position at UF, where he is now a professor of economics.
After moving to Gainesville, Nancy Denslow recommitted to her scientific love and enrolled in the doctoral program in the College of Medicine’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology.
“I had a great time learning how to do research and studying about mitochondrial ribosomes and raising a family,” said Denslow, who had a second daughter soon after completing her Ph.D. A short time later, she landed a job as technical director of the Proteomics Core of UF’s Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology. She brought in mass spectrometry technology and created new methods for helping UF researchers with questions about proteins. She soon started the ICBR’s Biomarkers Core Facility and established 2D electrophoresis as a service.
One of her first clients, an investigator from the Environmental Protection Agency’s laboratory in Gulf Breeze, Fla., brought fish that had been exposed to poly aromatic hydrocarbons and other endocrine compounds, and presented with hepatocellular carcinomas.
“He wanted me to analyze their blood for potential biomarkers,” Denslow said. “We did, and found vitellogenin, the egg yolk protein responsive to estrogen, had been induced in male fish. This suggested that some of the contaminants were estrogen-like and were inducing male fish to produce female-specific proteins. The significance of the finding changed her research path. “After some research, we decided to make monoclonal antibodies against the biomarker. We were among the first to document the problem of estrogens in the U.S. waterways with wild fish.”
She said the research fascinated her because it was fundamental and basic, yet resolved a real issue and thus it was easy to see its practical application. Now Denslow is known for pioneering the introduction of molecular approaches to ecotoxicology, as well as for her collegial and enthusiastic approach to collaborative research and her endless appetite for science.
She received the Pfizer Award for Research Excellence from UF in 2007 and was named a UF Research Foundation professor in 2009. She cofounded two startup companies at the Biotechnology Development Institute, but modestly credits colleagues “who were willing to take the risk with me.”
What she most enjoys at UF is working with students, postdoctoral associates and staff.
“It is especially fun to solve a new problem or get new answers to issues that are facing us all in the environment,” Denslow said.