Under the guidance of Associate Professor of Biology Meghan Brown, recent graduates Alexander Gatch ’16 and Kathryn Mendez ’16 focused on aquatic life in the Finger Lakes for their Honors projects which were completed this past spring.
Gatch’s project involved determining mercury levels in lake trout in the Finger Lakes to address the potential health risks associated with fish consumption. For her Honors research, Mendez wanted to answer an ecological question about invasive species using molecular biology tools. Her project intended to detect an invasive species of the Finger Lakes, the bloody red shrimp, via environmental DNA (eDNA).
A double major in biology and environmental studies, Gatch’s project was a collaborative effort with the Finger Lakes Institute (FLI), through which he performed mercury testing via atomic absorption spectrophotometry. He found that mercury levels increased with fish weight and length. Gatch presented his results with researchers from the FLI at the International Association for Great Lakes Research meeting in June in Guelph, Ontario.
“Alex is incredibly well-rounded in terms of his strengths, both in the field and intellectually,” says Brown, who first met Gatch as a sophomore in her “Aquatic Biology” course. Brown says she’s delighted with Gatch’s success on the mercury project.
Currently, Gatch is working as a fisheries technician at the Little Moose Field Station, which serves as Cornell University’s aquatic field research headquarters in the Adirondacks. He plans to attend graduate school to continue a career in fisheries biology at the state or federal level.
A double major in biology and environmental studies, Mendez was awarded the competitive Hersh Scholarship as a first-year student. Hersh recipients exhibit exceptionally strong academics and substantial extracurricular involvement and community service.
Regarding her Honors project, Mendez explains that eDNA protocols seek to extract organismal DNA, such as hair, feces or epithelial cells, distributed into an environment. She says that the shrimp are known as a cryptic aquatic species, meaning that they are difficult to capture using traditional methods. Although the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique used to detect shrimp eDNA in Mendez’s experiments was not successful, she persevered and moved the project in a different direction.
Brown says that Mendez successfully sequenced the entire mitochondrial genome of the bloody red shrimp species. Access to this gene sequence could be useful for future projects in Brown’s lab.
“One of the things I learned about the scientific process is that in our undergraduate careers we do labs that have been designed by professors to have successful results, and we can sometimes forget that a lot of scientific work is trial and error,” says Mendez.
Brown applauds Mendez’s efforts on her Honors project, stating that “organization and perseverance” were her strongest attributes.
Mendez, who was first drawn to Brown’s lab after taking her “Invasion Biology” course, is currently enrolled in an accelerated Bachelor of Science (BSN) in nursing program at Binghamton University. She says lessons from Brown’s lab can be applied to her new profession as well.
“Nursing is very similar to scientific research. There are often times when a treatment does not work. At this point you have to go back to the drawing board and look at what you’ve tried and what your initial results are and design a new treatment or new methodology,” Mendez says. Brown concurs, adding, “I can see her strengths aligning well with nursing.”
After completing her BSN in May 2017, Mendez plans to work for a year or two in labor and delivery before returning for her Master’s in Nursing (MSN), specializing in nurse midwifery.