The Columns

Down By the River Over the summer, students worked with Professor Robert Humston to examine the potential effects of smallmouth bass on native brook trout populations in the Virginia watershed.

— by on October 30th, 2017

From l. to r.: Kurt Waibel ’19, Hashim Syed ’19 (handling the fish), Taylor Dockery ’19 (light green shirt) and Spencer Alascio ’19.

Spencer Alascio ’19: Grafton, Wisconsin; Biology/Environmental Studies
Taylor Dockery ’19: Montgomery, Alabama; Economics
Hashim Syed ’19: Atlanta; Biology
Kurt Waibel ’19: Hickory, North Carolina; Chemical Engineering and Geology

Q: What is your summer research project?
Our group is looking into the potential effects of smallmouth bass on native brook trout populations in the Virginia watershed. We collected fin clips from brook trout and smallmouth, along with a complete assortment of non-game fish species. In addition to fin clips, we collected aquatic invertebrates and the gut contents of captured smallmouth and brook trout. This was all to create complete food webs of our sample streams and to analyze shifts in trophic positions.

Q: What did an average day for you look like?
We loaded up our research truck with waders, boots, electro-fishers, nets, buckets, measuring equipment, storage containers and coolers. We then drove about one hour away to reach our target stream sites. Once there, we put on our waders and set up a processing station near the stream bed. After this we roamed up and down the section of river, stunning fish with the electro-fisher and collecting them or capturing aquatic invertebrates with sein nets. Once sufficient specimens were gathered, we processed them — recorded the species name, weight, clipped their fin and performed gastric lavage to gather gut contents (make them regurgitate). Once every fish was processed and released, we packed up our equipment and headed back to the lab to store the samples in the freezer. On our in-lab days we filed away the notes taken in the field and crushed the collected invertebrate samples and fish-fin clips for future SI analysis.

Q: What was the most interesting thing you have learned while working on this project?
Dockery:
“I was drawn to this project because of my interest in fishing and conservation. I now have a better understanding of how stream ecosystems function and how certain species of fish fit into that ecosystem. I gained a greater appreciation for field biology and stream ecology.”

Syed: “Prior to beginning research, I had no idea how intricate river ecosystems and food webs were. I found it quite interesting to see how smallmouth bass and brook trout have come to occupy different niches and predatory roles, despite existing concurrently within the same river systems. I also found the degree of species diversity that existed within a relatively shallow stream to be remarkable. Identifying the several different species of macro-invertebrates and comparing the diets between bass and trout has only made me more interested in our project and the conclusions we can draw once we finish.”

Alascio: “I have learned that in research the potential outcomes and conclusions you can draw are constantly shifting. How our paper is written and what it focuses on has undergone an exceptional amount of morphing as we continued to collect data and analyze the information. This is not to say that the basic goal of our research has changed, but how we characterize and present the information is continuously evolving.”

Waibel: “I now have a much better understanding of what really goes on behind the scenes in order to publish research, and have certainly gained an appreciation for the massive amounts of both time and effort that goes into a study like ours.”

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Alascio:
“The incredible amount of variation found in uncontrolled experimental areas. Factors such as rainfall, temperature, time of day and time of year all contribute to a level of unpredictability that is quite different from the conditions other researchers grapple with.”

Dockery: “Initially, I was challenged by the amount of biology vocabulary and processes that I did not know at the start of the summer. After awhile, it was no longer an issue.”

Syed: “So far we have collected and identified several different species of macro-invertebrates, collected fin clips and gut contents via gastric lavage from several different species of fish, and we have just began drying and crushing our invertebrate samples for mass-spec analysis. All of the different work has required different techniques and methodologies, and initially I found it somewhat overwhelming. Since then, however, I have begun enjoying learning about all the different things we do and am glad to be on such a dynamic project.”

Waibel: “This project incorporated many different types of work, and it was integral for me to understand how each part fit into the scope of our research so that I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to answer the questions that we had set out to answer.”

Q: Have you had any mentors during this time?
Alascio:
“I have been fortunate enough to work directly under Professor Robert Humston during my two years of research. He has been an unwavering source of guidance for me, as well as an excellent example of how one should approach a research project and progress with it at a steady pace, without sacrificing the integrity of the work. Working under him has been one of the most influential experiences during my time here at Washington and Lee.”

Syed: “Professor Humston has been a great mentor throughout the duration of this project. He has always been informative and approachable, encouraging me to continue learning and ask questions. Additionally, I found the sheer amount of knowledge he possesses regarding his field extremely motivating for me as a biology major.”

Dockery: “As a member of the fly fishing club since freshman year, I have known Professor Humston for a while. Working with him this summer was an incredible learning experience, and I am appreciative of him taking me into this group.”

Waibel: “Working with Professor Humston was an exceptional experience, to say the least. Spending so much time with someone who is as passionate about the environment as I am was a blast. He has been a great mentor to me this summer, and I have soaked up as much knowledge as I possibly could. He is someone I know that I can always come to in the future, and I am very grateful that he provided me with such a wonderful opportunity.”

Q: Has this experience impacted your studies or future plans in any way?
Alascio:
 “I came in to W&L with the intention of following the pre-med program, and after a year of research with Professor Humston, I switched from looking at medical school to pursuing a career in environmentally based research.”

Syed: “Although I still intend to apply to medical school, doing research at W&L has been quite rewarding. As a result, I have started considering medical research of some sort in the future.”

Dockery: “This experience has not specifically changed my career path, but it has improved my stream-ecology knowledge —something that is necessary to become a better outdoorsman.”

Waibel: “Even though I am majoring in chemical engineering and geology, this experience has only served to fuel my passion for the environment. I don’t know what the future holds, but I certainly would enjoy doing more work like this.”

Q: How did W&L prepare you for this experience?
Alascio:
 “W&L prepared me for this experience by setting a standard for how to approach work and how to handle the responsibility that a job in research requires.”

Syed: “As a biology major, I have taken several classes in the science departments. These courses have helped me develop the problem-solving skills and capabilities necessary for research.”

Dockery: “Economics is obviously a very different discipline than field biology. However, the quantitative aspects and the problem-solving skills overlap in more ways than many people would assume. W&L pushes you out of your comfort zone every semester, regardless of your major, so I felt right at home in a completely different discipline.”

Waibel: “At W&L, one of the skills that I have sharpened the most is my ability to learn on the fly, and this was a skill that was crucial to working on this research project. In other words, W&L has made me better at learning how to learn.”

Q: Why is this kind of experience important to W&L students?
Alascio:
“I talk to many people who go to different colleges, and, for the most part, they are working part-time jobs at pools or grocery stores to try and make some money, while I am gaining invaluable research experience and exposure to multiple career paths that could be in my future. Summer research in Lexington allows me to be intentional with my time at W&L.”

Dockery: “Working with professors in a research setting allows you to develop relationships that you would not make in the typical classroom or advisory setting. Learning happens at all points during the day, with every single experience.”

Syed: “The main reason I chose to do research at W&L over the summer was in order to take advantage of the opportunities the biology department has to offer. In doing so, I have found that research is much more interesting than my preconceived notions of students stuck in labs all day long doing repetitive tasks. I’ve learned a new thing every day.”

Waibel: “For W&L students, the opportunity to work closely with professors in a research setting is one that shouldn’t be passed up. It is a way to garner skills that one might not learn otherwise, and it is a great way to build a relationship with someone who shares a common interest and can help you further prepare for your future.”