Mazey fellowship fuels graduate student’s research

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BOWLING GREEN, O.—Like the proverbial canary in the coalmine, crayfish can tell us a lot about the state and safety of our environment. Sara Lahman, a Ph.D. student in sensory ecology from Delta, Ohio, is researching how altering an organism’s environment can affect its ability to extract and respond to information, using the crayfish as her test subject.

Lowly creatures though they may seem, the crayfish is a “keystone species,” Lahman explained. “As both prey and predator, they’re part of the terrestrial and aquatic food webs. They’re an early indicator of an ecosystem’s health.”

Lahman, who will graduate in May, is the inaugural recipient of the Mary Ellen Mazey Fellowship for Women in Science, created by the BGSU president. The $16,000 award covers the cost of her teaching assistantship this year.

“I am so proud of Sara and her work,” Mazey said. “She is contributing important knowledge to her field, and she is bringing along other young people and encouraging their success.”

Competitive financial packages are necessary to attract outstanding graduate students, such as Lahman, who generate knowledge, attract top faculty, and play a critical role as teachers and mentors to undergraduate students, the president added.

“The award has freed up huge chunks of my time,” Lahman said. “It’s allowing me to finish up my writing and research and explore the next steps in my career. I really appreciate this opportunity, especially as a nontraditional student and woman in science, for how it’s helped me make the best use of my time. And I appreciate the opportunity to be an example for women in science.”

Over the course of her studies, Lahman has always been exceptionally productive, said Dr. Paul Moore, a professor of biological sciences and Lahman’s mentor. “With five anticipated publications, she’s publishing at about the rate of our faculty members,” he said.

She has undertaken three projects, published two of them, and is finishing a third. She is a contributor, along with two other doctoral students, to an invited book chapter on crayfish ecology by Moore, currently in review. “I also have two other manuscripts in preparation that I hope to publish before I leave,” she said.

Along with furthering her own career, Lahman has sought to help and promote other highly qualified women in science, Moore said.

Although she is not in the classroom this semester, she taught for three years and, following Moore’s example, decided early on she wanted to develop her mentoring skills, which required a considerable time commitment. She identified then-freshman Kaitlyn Trent, an environmental policy major, as a promising student when she taught her in an introductory biology/ecology class for non-science majors.

“I recruited her and she has helped me with my research for three years,” Lahman said. “She was so instrumental in helping with my research that I named her second author on one of the papers I published. And I helped her design two completely independent research projects. I want to help undergraduates design projects that ask pertinent, impactful questions that are insightful and engaged.

“Paul recruited me as an undergraduate to work in his lab,” she said. “He’s also taught me to sharpen my critical thinking and how to develop my own teaching philosophy.”

“Her guidance of Kaitlyn has been outstanding,” Moore said, “not only in research but in more subtle aspects of what it means to be a scientist in society and publishing and how to speak about your work. Kaitlyn is really smart, but Sara’s mentoring activated that intelligence and pointed it in the right direction.”

Teaching undergraduates also turned out to be Lahman’s North Star in finding a career direction.

“I want to teach at a smaller liberal arts college that focuses on undergraduate research where I can do impactful research and help nonmajors become well-educated and excited about biology and environmental science, especially since they’re going to be voting on these issues,” she said.

“That’s where her heart lies,” Moore observed. “Sara has experienced such personal, social and intellectual growth that I think she’ll create that perfect environment wherever she goes, and her students will benefit.”

Remembering his first encounter with Lahman as an undergraduate, Moore said, “I saw sparks of scientific thinking by her in the classroom, an ability to process information and make deeper connections. She has the ability to think for herself.”

He later helped her find a master’s program: behavioral physiology and conservation genetics at the University of San Francisco. She then spent eight years as an environmental biologist and water quality specialist with an independent environmental consulting firm in northern California, getting married and having a son along the way. “I took continuing education classes all along to obtain certifications in wetland delineation and water chemistry, and volunteered with environmental groups,” she said.

“But I began to wonder and want to research what these chemicals were actually doing in the water,” she said, which eventually led her to contact Moore again about a doctoral program, which landed her back at BGSU specializing in ecotoxicology, through the lens of the rusty crayfish.

In the murky underwater world of the crayfish, sight and sound are muffled, leaving the invertebrates only their sense of smell to rely on for locating food and mates and avoiding predators. Luckily, they are very adept at navigating this way.

But now imagine what happens when the crayfishes’ sense of smell is overwhelmed by pollution from untreated wastewater, discharges from power plants, heavy metals washing off roadways, and pesticides and other agricultural runoff.

“They become ‘nose blind,’” said Lahman. “They can’t smell because of the pollutants and so they can’t detect, process and respond appropriately to stimuli and information. I liken it to us being in Times Square, and being overwhelmed by the sensory overload.”

“Nose Blind” is the title of her upcoming talk at the international conference of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, where she has presented twice before.

Particularly troublesome for the crayfish, she has found, is copper — from commercial pesticides, tire- and brake-pad wear that washes off roads into waterways, copper pipes and copper sulfate in ponds.

She has studied the differences in the effects from the dispersal of pollutants through different means of entry into flowing water systems (accepted for publication in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology); how various levels of copper impacts the crayfish’s vital ability to locate an odor source (accepted for publication in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety), and last, whether crayfish can regain their ability to locate odors when the pollutant is lessened or removed. (“The good news is they improved, so that’s a hopeful sign,” Lahman said.)

The Mazey fellowship tops off other awards and scholarships she has received from BGSU, both as an undergraduate and graduate student. “She has put herself in a really good position to launch her career,” Moore said.