Students travel to Scotland to continue research on marine life

August 2, 2013

Glen Coe
Gemma Wallace '14 and Daniel Zajic '14 take a break from their research to visit the beautiful Scottish countryside.

Scotland is not only known for bagpipe music and rolling hills. It’s also home to an expansive salmon farming industry and some groundbreaking collaborative student research on osmotic balance—that is, the balance between salt and water—in the cells of marine animals.

Two biology majors, Gemma Wallace ’14 and Daniel Zajic ’14, recently traveled to Scotland with Carl E. Peterson Endowed Chair of Sciences Paul Yancey to visit salmon farms and to meet with international scientists in their field.

Zajic and Yancey have found an osmolyte, a small molecule that reduces water loss from saltwater dehydration in body cells, in salmon fin samples. These findings, the basis for his senior thesis project, could have a significant economic effect on the salmon farming industry worldwide.

Salmon farmers need to know when salmon are ready to move from freshwater to seawater so that their fish don’t die. Currently, they do an expensive test on gill samples from dead fish to figure this out. If they can detect osmolytes in fin samples instead, they can get the information they need without killing fish.

Zajic was excited to see his work have an impact on the larger academic community, but he was even more excited to work with renowned marine biologists.

“The best part of the trip for me was meeting all of these researchers that I have only ever heard of by name. Interacting with them and their graduate students just further bolstered my want to pursue a Ph.D. program in marine biology,” he said.

Salmon farm
Professor Paul Yancey, Gemma Wallace '14 and Daniel Zajic '14 collect important fin samples at a large salmon farm.

Just seeing the salmon farm was an interesting experience for Yancey.

“We visited the ultra-clean salmon processing factory. We had to put on white coats, sterile boots and gloves and hairnets to enter, where we saw salmon being processed and packed for immediate shipment to local and distant restaurants,” he said.  

Wallace focused her research on a creature slightly more mysterious than salmon: amphipods from the deepest trenches of the ocean. Wallace and Yancey are looking to see if osmolytes make it possible for these creatures to withstand such high pressure, just as they make it possible for salmon to move from freshwater to saltwater. Their project is just one part of the larger HADES project, a research effort focused on the deepest marine habitats on earth and funded by the National Science Foundation

While in Scotland, Wallace also had the opportunity to present her early findings to a group of marine biologists and students involved in the HADES project at a University of Aberdeen conference. Like Zajic, she was excited for the opportunity to meet other researchers in her field.

“It was a great opportunity to meet other deep-sea biologists, and I got some great feedback on my work.  It was exciting to see what was going on in other labs, and meeting them really emphasized how collaborative and integrative this project is,” she said.

Both students were grateful to have the opportunity to work so closely with a Yancey.

“Working with [Yancey] has been great! He’s an expert in the field and it has been a privilege to learn from him,” said Wallace.

Likewise, Yancey was glad for the opportunity to collaborate with undergraduates.

“I chose to stay at Whitman rather than move to a huge research university because of the great students we get here,” he said.