Engaged Learning: Undergraduate Research

Alex Maguffee collected samples from a stream
Alex Maguffee, Biology

Alex Maguffee used waders for the first time in May of last year. During the course of one long weekend, he became well acquainted with those waders. The UM-Flint biology student collected scores of larvae sea lamprey, knee-deep in northern Lower Michigan creek water as part of a larger research project conducted by one of his professors and a graduate student.
In the months ahead, Maguffee graduated from a novice waders-wearer to leading the statistical analysis of the burrowing habits of the sea lamprey in their larval stage for the project. He wasn’t turned off when watching an educator from another college slice open a sea lamprey. It was his eureka moment, in which he realized wildlife biology could truly be his career.

Maguffee graduated from University of Michigan-Flint last December and starts graduate school at Michigan State University in January. He has professional aspirations of fisheries research and then a career as a college professor. He was a co-author of a report on lamprey research accepted for publication in the Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management. The date of publication has not yet been set.

Maguffee credits the field research as key to clarifying his career path.

“It was very eye-opening. Knowing what they do further solidified what I wanted to do in wildlife biology,” Maguffee said about the work conducted by UM-Flint biology professor Heather Dawson and Danielle Potts, then a graduate student and now a lecturer in biology at the university.

Danielle Potts, Alex Maguffee, and Heather Dawson

It started near the end of his Winter 2012 semester. The third-year student knew he needed some real-life experience in the field so he approached Dawson, who taught his wildlife ecology and management class. Dawson had already studied sea lamprey for nearly a decade, including at the university since 2009. She told him about the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), in which students work with faculty on research on a paid or volunteer basis. 

For the next year, through UROP, Maguffee cut his research teeth by monitoring sea lamprey behavior on recorded video for a graduate student’s project.

By May of 2013, Maguffee was ready for his first field research. Since 2010, Dawson and Potts had been conducting Great Lakes sea lamprey research. The creatures are parasitic fish that siphon the blood and body fluids of large fish. The non-native fish have caused havoc to native fish populations on the Great Lakes.

The lamprey’s eggs hatch into larvae that burrow into stream beds, Dawson said, where they stay for 3 to 7 years. At this stage, they are harmless. It is not until the lamprey metamorphosize into parasites—with eyes and teeth and make their way into the Great Lakes—that they become dangerous, she said.

Dawson and Potts wanted to research the movement of larval sea lamprey in streams to see if the fish moved downstream as they grew or changed their habitat preferences. Chemicals are used to specifically kill larvae in streams to prevent them from making it to the parasitic stage and reaching the Great Lakes.

The lampricides used usually target those areas with the highest amount of large larvae, Potts said. But if the creatures moved downstream or burrowed into different materials as they grew, the wrong areas might be targeted or the number of larvae might be underestimated.

Starting in 2011, Dawson and Potts started collecting lamprey larvae in Michigan streams. At first, the duo inserted small tags inside the animal, allowed them to heal, then released them back in the wild. The Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags are read using an antenna and track larvae movement.

Last year, Dawson welcomed Maguffee to the research team and they gathered lamprey larvae in Silver Creek in Iosco County. Maguffee was paid partly through UROP and also as a research assistant to Dawson.

Danielle Potts, Heather Dawson, and Alex Maguffee

Some of the larvae, about 100 millimeters (or nearly 4 inches) long, had 8 and 9 millimeter tags inserted into their bodies. After healing, the larvae’s burrowing habits were tested in a large tank at the Hammond Bay Biological Station in Millersburg. Larvae also were monitored in a simulated stream at the station.

The research, originally aimed at studying the larval sea lamprey’s movement, became an analysis of the monitoring tags.

Potts said, “It became ‘are these tags feasible to study these kind of animals?'”

The crew tried smaller and smaller sizes, Potts said, but too many of the larvae with the tags died off. This happened even with 8 millimeter tags, the smallest size on the market.

Maguffee led the data analysis of the burrowing movements and actions of the larvae. It turned out, the tags actually changed the creatures’ burrowing habits.

“Alex is very good with the whole technology side. Video. Computer models,” Potts said. “That’s not my skill. That’s something he was able to bring that really benefited the project. Everyone brings their own experience, their own strength to it.”

In fact, Maguffee continues to do graphics and computer modeling work for his former professor.

Dawson said she regularly employs undergraduate students on her research projects, either as paid research assistants, for class credit, or as volunteer opportunities in their field of study. The students get to network and truly learn about research. And Dawson taps into the students’ creative mindsets.

“Students come from the perspective of being pretty idealistic, which is great and wonderful to work with,” she said.

  • confirmed passion and career path
  • co-authored paper that was accepted by research publication
  • research faciliated familiarization with new technologies
  • undergraduate research expereince aided graduate school acceptence
  • research will inform efforts to better control invasive sea lamprey populations in the Great Lakes