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Researcher of the Month
Biochemistry major, Honors College, class of 2014
2012 URECA Summer Program
Research Mentor: Dr. Michael Bell, Ecology & Evolution
Alice McGarry, an Honors College junior majoring in Biochemistry, has been working for the past year under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Bell, in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, studying the evolution of a lake population of stickleback fish. This past April, Alice presented a poster, “The lack of evolution in a threespine stickleback population: the exception that proves the rule” at the campus-wide URECA symposium and was selected to receive URECA support for summer 2012 to support her research on “Staging and comparative analysis of skeletal development in the ninespine stickleback.”
Alice gained many hands-on skills while investigating morphological traits of threespine stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus) in the laboratory. But new research challenges arose this summer when Alice joined her mentor and graduate student colleagues on a field trip to Alaska! Laden with waders and fish traps, exploring lakes in the Kenai peninsula in all sorts of weather in search of the elusive ninespine stickleback, Alice worked long days to collect enough specimens for her project (specimens are now back in the Bell lab for followup work). While staying at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, Alice also was filmed doing stickleback genetics, for an episode in a series of short educational films, produced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, on the role of development and genetics in evolutionary change and formation of biodiversity.
Alice McGarry hails from Hauppauge NY, and graduated from Hauppauge High School. Prior to starting in the Honors College in fall 2010, Alice was selected to receive the Harvey Lyman award to support a summer research rotation working with Dr. Maurice Kernan in Neurobiology and Behavior on the effects of the chibbymutation on hearing in fruit flies. She is a member of Sigma Beta Honor Society, The National Society of Collegiate Scholars, and has now twice been given the Outstanding Academic Achievement Award-4.0 (Spring and Fall 2011 semesters). In summer 2011, Alice completed Emergency Medical Technician Training, and participated in Study Abroad Tanzania. Alice McGarry has previously been a member of the Equestrian club at Stony Brook, and has worked at the NY State Emergency Veterinary Center, Islandia Farms, and Saddle Rock Ranch. Below are excerpts of Alice's interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about the project you worked on this summer.
Alice: Currently I’m doing a follow up project that another undergrad (Brian Lohman) in the Bell lab started. It involves developing a staging system (emphasizing skeletal structure and formation of collagen) for threespine stickleback, which is what we normally work on in the Bell lab: Basically we’re looking at how bone structures develop in the embryonic stages. My project focuses on ninespine stickleback (which has not been studied as extensively as the threespine), and I’ll be performing crosses, growing them and comparing how the two species correlate in their development.
This past June, I had the opportunity to go with my mentor and some of the grad students from the Bell lab to Alaska so that we could trap and collect our own fish samples from different lakes in Alaska. I’ll be continuing to do follow-up work and analysis on these fish, which we had shipped back here to our lab here in Life Sciences.
That must have been exciting, going to Alaska!
It was so much fun! I had a great time! Also while we were there, a film crew showed up. They were doing a documentary/evolution series and they talked for awhile to Mike Bell about his work, and filmed us in the lab.
We also met people from a lot of different universities, from all over. One of the people there was Peter Park – he had worked with Mike Bell as an undergrad at SB and now he’s a professor at Nyack College. There was also a parasitologist from Norway who had a lot of great stories. . . It was really cool to meet all these people who do research in related areas to what we do in the lab.
Another interesting aspect of the trip was talking to the local people & communicating with the public. They would see us in waders around the lakes and sometimes ask us questions about what we were doing. There’s a large population there that doesn’t really believe in evolution …
Had you been working on this project prior for a long time?
This past academic year, I was working in the Bell lab, but on a different project. The project I did before was looking at samples from Ida Lake (Alaska) --studying a population of threespine stickleback and their evolution over the past twenty years. I presented it at URECA in April.
Did you have to go through a lot of training, to learn the techniques for handling/studying
With the first project I worked on, all the fish are preserved in paraformaldehyde and isopropenol. You’re looking at dead fish, learning how to discern features and score different traits. But in Alaska we were working with live fish, setting up crosses. Luckily, I had a lot of people there with lots of experience who were willing to help me and who knew what to do. There are actually lots of differences with the threespine and ninespine, and you have to know how to treat the fish.
How did you first get started in the Bell lab?
I had been looking on the Ecology and Evolution website and I stumbled upon Mike Bell’s lab page. It sounded really interesting and when I first emailed him asking advice about how to go about getting started doing research, he immediately invited me over to be lab and gave me a project. …Mike Bell is really an awesome mentor. He’s so into it. He always looks out for you—training you, pushing you to get you more experience. He’s already offered me a great project work that I’ll eventually be able to include for my senior thesis project.
What do you learn from doing research that you don’t learn from classroom teaching
In class, I’m pretty good at picking up what the teachers want me to know: you learn to study hard, and say it back to them. But with the research, I enjoyed the process of thinking through problems. I really liked the whole problem solving part of it: thinking for myself, using the resources around me to gather my own knowledge as opposed to sitting in a class, learning what they want you to learn. Doing the work – actually doing it --you learn so much more and you get so much more into it. I’ve had to deal with a lot of different road blocks in my project so actually doing the research has taught me to be more independent too—people aren’t always around to help you.
What sorts of obstacles did you face?
The last few days in Alaska were stressful. Ninespines are much rarer than threespines. We only found one or two places where there are just ninespines. So when we went back to one place to collect samples where we knew there had been ninespines, we discovered that the previous researcher working on ninespines had cleaned out the area. We hadn’t anticipated that …that there would be so very few ninespines left. But it ended up ok. I knew I wanted to trap in a different area. And we went out there in a storm, getting our last samples. By the end, since I was the one who knew most about ninespines, I was put in charge—which was a big change for me. I don’t usually do that. I usually wait for people to tell me what to do. It pushed me to do my own thing and be independent.
How many fish did you need to collect?
I was shooting for 15 gravid males and females (ready to reproduce). We got a lot of juveniles. … I think I ended up with 10 males and 8 females.
What were some of your favorite experiences?
Two grad students, Jen & Adam, and I spent a couple of days at the Kenai peninsula. There was one very long day we had that was actually quite fun. We went looking for two lakes that we had never been to before. …and when we arrived, we found that the gate was closed. So we had to walk all the way to the lake, about 6 miles or so, each of us carrying 10 traps. We didn’t get back to the car until 1 in the morning!
What are the traps like? Do you trap things you don’t intend to trap?
Have you ever seen minnow traps? They’re somewhat similar—and yes, we sometimes caught leeches, salmonids, things that you had to just throw back.
During the school year, how difficult is it to balance coursework and research?
It can be tough to balance. But often, the research is flexible: you might have one week where you may not need to spend so much time and can focus on other things. Also, when you’re doing staining or other procedures in the lab, you may have a lot of down time where you can study and do other things.
Was research what drew you to SB?
Yes, I knew that SB had a great research program. For some reason, a lot of other universities didn’t seem to have as many opportunities for freshman and sophomores to do research and that kind of frustrated me. Here at SB, I was able to get involved doing research in a genetics lab at SB even the summer before I started here in the Honors College.
What advice would you give to other students?
Get yourself into what your project is – don’t wait for someone else to tell you to do something. I wish I had started earlier, reading up more, looking at different papers to gain more outside knowledge. I think doing that just helps to get you more into your project, more vested in it.
Did you enjoy presenting at URECA symposium?
I really liked it. I was kind of nervous in the days leading up to it because this was my first time presenting. But I really liked my project and I liked explaining it to people. I had a good time trapping people by my poster. I would stand away and wait for them to start reading and then jump over, and say, “Want to hear about it?”