Dr. Michelle Monette, Assistant Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Western Connecticut State University, has found a way to incorporate real-life, hands-on research experience into the required coursework for biology department students. Both a required course and an extracurricular experience, Dr. Monette has introduced another course option for biology students’ capstone research project, which involves travel to the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.
The MDI Biological Laboratory is a renowned facility that was recognized by the National Institutes of Health as a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) in 2013 and is recognized as a world-class science education institution. According to Dr. Monette, MDI Biological Lab is of great relevance to the group’s work due to the facility’s roots being linked to research into the physiological processes associated with salt and water balance within animal bodies.
Dr. Monette took her five-week summer course to the next level in an effort to expand students’ horizons both in and out of the classroom. The goal of the capstone project is to expose students to the scientific processes involved in biological research, but students also receive an additional benefit. They are fully immersed in a scientific environment which allows them to interact with scientists who are conducting advanced studies and graduate students who are managing their own research projects.
The course model that Professor Monette has established offers WCSU students exposure to science that is unlike anything available to them on campus. “There are a number of programs at Western where faculty are taking students off-campus to focus and do hands-on things,” Dr. Monette shared. “I think it’s really good for our students. Prior to this experience some of my students had never been out of state. Not only is it academically good for them, but it’s socially good for them as well. As far as life skills, it’s good for them to get out and see other places and interact with different people.”
The five-week long summer course begins with a one-week long trip to Mt. Desert Island to conduct research on Atlantic salmon. Why Atlantic salmon? Dr. Monette is interested in physiology, a branch of biology that focuses on how the body works, whether human or animal. One of her research interests is how animals regulate or maintain salt and water balance in their bodies. “One of the coolest animals to study when you care about how an animal maintains salt and water balance is the salmon,” Dr. Monette explained. “These fish are living in two majorly different environments when it comes to salt. Salmon are born and grow up in freshwater, and then they make this awesome migration down to the ocean pretty quickly, which has a major effect on their physiology – the tissues that are involved, the gill, some of their intestines and their gut, what’s happening in those tissues: the proteins involved, the processes that allow them to be able to move from freshwater to seawater.”
It’s a big physiological challenge to be able to live in both environments. For reference, there are about 30,000 known species of fish today. Only about 150 of those species are able to go from freshwater to saltwater or vice versa. The remaining number stick to one type of water or the other, so it’s definitely not a move that all fish are able to do.
The group’s trip to Maine is especially relevant because it’s one of the last remaining breeding grounds for Atlantic salmon in the United States. “The time that we go – during the end of May – that’s the exact time that the salmon are leaving the rivers and migrating to the ocean,” the professor explained, “so we couldn’t be going to a more relevant place to be working on Atlantic salmon and studying their physiology.”
Dr. Monette goes above and beyond to arrange the students’ experience at the lab. From working with the lab’s Education Department to arranging the basics of their stay (dorms, meals, and lab space), Dr. Monette prepared extensively for the experiment before it even began. Dr. Monette worked with a nearby salmon hatchery to secure fish for the experiment and was even able to arrange a special trip for the students to that hatchery. Because the group conducts research on live specimens, there are animal care protocols and permit work involved as well. “In order to work with live fish, I have to write an animal care protocol, which details exactly what we are going to do with them. And that has to be done before any of the students actually get their hands on the fish. We work with live vertebrate animals, so the procedure for the experiment has to be approved by a committee,” Dr. Monette explained. In addition to those requirements, the group’s research also involves animal care technicians in the transfer of the fish from the hatchery to the research lab, where they will also care for the animals before the group arrives.
Students are required to pay a travel fee for the week spent in Maine in addition to tuition costs, which some might see as a barrier to the experience. But Dr. Monette recognized this and applied for a $5000 grant being offered by the Mt. Desert Island lab to help cover those costs. “I wrote a small proposal of what I planned to do at the lab and the impact it would have on my students, and the lab happened to have a fund that fit that mission, so they provided me the grant.” Last year and this year Dr. Monette received the grant, and has used the funding to make the trip more affordable and accessible for participating students.
Dr. Monette has had a long-standing relationship with the Mt. Desert Island facility, and has been going there for ten years to conduct some of her own research and teach classes there. “Before I was at Western, I was at Yale University, and as part of the curriculum at Yale, we had a similar class where we took first-year medical students there for a week-long intensive research class. So I’ve very much modeled this trip on what I did with those students.”
During the five-week period of the summer course, students are able to take part in each phase of the scientific process. Students are able to ask a question, design an experiment, work with live fish, conduct sampling of the fish, run analyses in the lab, collect and analyze data, and present their findings. Students present their findings both written and orally to Western faculty at the close of the project. “They get the full scientific experience in five weeks,” Dr. Monette said.
It’s an opportunity that wouldn’t be possible on-campus, especially when one considers all the requirements of the experiment: large numbers of fish, large tanks with running water, animal care technicians. Plus the students also get the opportunity to expand their networks and interact with other professionals and graduate students in the field.
Students who have participated in the class have responded very positively to the experience, and several have since carried on their pursuit of science or received paid opportunities in the field. The travel portion of this year’s research course runs from May 28th to June 4th. Students will conduct research for one week, spending the remaining four weeks on-campus analyzing the data and working on their written and oral presentations, with Dr. Monette mentoring each burgeoning biologist along the way.
Dr. Michelle Monette has worked at WCSU in the Biology Department since January 2013. She teaches Anatomy and Physiology, Animal Physiology, and Group Senior Research. She also works closely with several Independent Study students each semester, mentoring them on their respective research projects. She runs her own research lab at Western and collaborates with other biology faculty in Science Outreach to the local Danbury community. For more on Dr. Monette and her research, visit her WCSU faculty page.