When Tori Bischoff was born, she did not have complete functionality of the muscles in her eyes. For the first seven years of her life, she struggled to see and eventually underwent surgery to correct her eyesight.

After this experience, she vowed to pursue a career that allowed her to positively impact the lives of others, just as the surgeon had impacted hers.

SULI Success Story: Tori Bischoff

As a participant in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tori Bischoff contributed to research aimed at understanding how microorganisms produce methylmercury in the environment.

To gain hands-on research experience after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Northern Kentucky University, Bischoff participated in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The program allows students and recent graduates to perform research under the guidance of laboratory staff scientists on projects supporting the U.S. Department of Energy mission.

Alongside Alexander Johs, Ph.D., a staff member in ORNL’s Environmental Sciences Division, Bischoff contributed to a research project aimed at better understanding how microorganisms produce methylmercury, a neurotoxin.

Previous research led by ORNL has identified two genes that are essential for converting mercury into methylmercury in bacteria. However, it remains unclear which forms of mercury interact with bacteria to produce the neurotoxin.

“If the most highly absorbed mercury species can be determined, future studies can look more closely at the mechanisms involved in the mercury transfer across the bacterial membranes,” Bischoff said. “This will aid in developing strategies to curtail the production of toxic methylmercury in mercury contaminated waterways.”

Small organisms like plankton, which are present in all natural bodies of water, accumulate methylmercury produced by microorganisms. When the smaller organisms are consumed by fish, it biomagnifies up the food chain and poses health risks to humans.

“This journey taught me that every individual will forge their own path through the STEM world. I did not do it the same as my professors, and they didn’t do it the same as theirs,” Bischoff said. “Take time to check in with yourself, find what you really love and why you love it. One day, with a little grit, you’ll be out in the world making the difference you have always dreamed of.”

Chronic methylmercury exposure through fish consumption has been shown to lead to a variety of adverse effects, including deficits in motor, visual, cognitive and psychomotor functions in adults, and impaired neurological development to fetuses exposed in utero.

The nerve-related damage from methylmercury exposure is often irreversible.

“By conducting the research outlined in this project, I actively contributed to the eventual prevention of neurologic impairment of many children through chronic in utero exposure to toxic methylmercury,” Bischoff said.

Bischoff’s time at ORNL provided her with practical research experience and reinforced her desire to pursue a STEM career.

“This journey taught me that every individual will forge their own path through the STEM world. I did not do it the same as my professors, and they didn’t do it the same as theirs,” Bischoff said. “Take time to check in with yourself, find what you really love and why you love it. One day, with a little grit, you’ll be out in the world making the difference you have always dreamed of.”

The SULI program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) and is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), managed by ORAU.