Reflections on Summer Research and Future Possibilities

This post was written by Katelyn McCabe.

For the longest time, I have had an inner struggle with what I want to do with my life (I call it my “I don’t want to be an adult college crisis”). I know I want to work with small animals and go to veterinary school, but do I want to practice medicine in a clinical setting? Or do I want to get my PhD and do research? When do I want to leave to do this? Am I ready? Since I am approaching my senior year, I know all of these questions should be answered, but I still don’t know.

This summer, I took on research in the Staab lab because I need a) the experience, and b) a senior capstone project, but also because I wanted to see if I would like the research angle that I have been contemplating. I have done research in the Psychology department at McDaniel before this (I used to be a double major and then got over that dream real quick when I found out that I would have to do 2 capstones) but research for the Biology department would be (and has been) very different. I have worked in a veterinary hospital for three years and I love it, but would I like research better? I figured this might make my decision about what I want to do with my life, or give me some direction at the very least..

So far, I have loved the aspect of research. All of the scientific paper reading, while definitely not my favorite part of the job, really expands your knowledge quickly. It’s like a puzzle that you need to put together, with different researchers finding the answer to different parts of the question, and I need to fit them all together and then formulate a question from that. With the actual data collecting, I enjoy what I am researching and like answering a question that no one has thought of yet, or answering a question from a different perspective. Plus, staining is pretty fun, especially when you’re answering questions about something that seems so small, like larvae, but so significant in the world of development! While data collection can be slow and trying at times, or frustrating when you don’t get the answer that you think you’re going to get, the final AHA! moment is so rewarding! Or the feeling when you first discover something really interesting coupled with the feeling of accomplishment.

A ventral (bottom) view of a baby Molly fish.

A ventral (bottom) view of a baby Molly fish.

As I am wrapping up my experiments for the summer, I have continued to compare research with clinical practice, and I am still undecided about where I want to go. I love helping animals and seeing the appreciation from their owners when something goes well, but seeing the death of pets is exhausting. I have learned from my job that it is not all puppies and kittens, which is an amazing lesson to learn. However, I have also learned from research that it isn’t always smooth sailing, just like with clinical practice, so there are pros and cons to both practices and I haven’t decided what pros are for me yet. I am continuing research into the semester, so this will add more experience for me. Plus my first conference will definitely be telltale- I have to be able to get through public talks to do research!

I guess my overall message here is

1)   if you’re a college senior and still freaking out about your life, don’t sweat it. You aren’t alone, believe me.

2)   researching and delving into different areas that interest you may be the key to what you’re looking for.

3)   research is exhausting, but so fun and rewarding and I wouldn’t change how I spent my first seven weeks of the summer!

Thank you to my research group, the Biology department, and especially Dr. Staab for putting up with me and my craziness/obsession with my Poecilia larvae this summer. I couldn’t have done this or made decisions without everyone! Hopefully this Fall is just as fun and exciting!




Staab Lab Rap

The past several weeks of summer research have been an incredible experience for me with the Bio. Department of McDaniel.  I feel like my words are not adequate to express my thanks and gratitude for having been welcomed into this phenomenal group.  So, in lieu of my babbling, I’m going to leave you all with a rap that I wrote for Dr. Staab in honor of one of the key inspirational figures in her life: Jay – Z.  This rap, entitled “Lab Girls,” is a parody of Jay-Z’s song “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…).”  If you would like, look up the lyrics on your own – I’m not going to post them here.  [Note: any drink mentioned below is referring to sparkling cider!]  I hope that you get as much of a kick out of this as I did!


Lab Girls (And the Winner is…)

First of all I wanna thank Dr. Staab

She’s the teacher, the most important job.

Thanks to science, and to all the noble fish

McDaniel College for holding all the cash

The Bio Department who taught us life in the lab

The first pub worker with whom we had a clash

And the awesome girls in the lab today.


Oh what a feeling I’m feeling life

Thanks for the people who gave us aim

For the research projects that are getting us in the game.

Faulty data will stop our buffoonery.

Oh, and thanks for rapping all the fishes’ eulogies

Thanks to all those who became our friends

For sure, it’s paying off dividends

Yeah, thanks to all the digressors

[– SQUIRREL!! –]

But most importantly, thanks to you: our professor.


The Lab Girls in the building tonight

Oh what a feeling, I’m feeling life

You don’t even gotta bring your data out

We the lab girls of the year, drinks is on the house

Look at how we’re geeking, we gettin’ this down.

You don’t even gotta bring your data out

We the lab girls of the year, drinks is on the house.


Put yo’ hands up baby, we just hit a score

Pick any fish in the sea, pick a shore

Take what the scientists figured, then figure more

Cause the primary lit. ain’t yet gotten to the core.

Pick a time, let’s pick apart some data sets

Pick a weekend for placing your bets

’Cause we’ve got some staining coming up

We don’t know what these slides are gonna show

So grab a microscope, let’s check the results

Scope it out and take some pics

They’re beautiful baby, these gems are sick.

Get a label and a box,

Posters and powerpoints to make all day

And then papers to write… oh yay

Don’t forget those lab notebooks – gotta record the process, see

’Cause we’re on our way to SICB, dig me?


The Lab Girls in the building tonight

Oh what a feeling, I’m feeling life

You don’t even gotta bring your data out

We the lab girls of the year, drinks is on the house

Look at how we’re geeking, we’re gettin’ this down.

You don’t even gotta bring your data out

We the lab girls of the year, drinks is on the house.


HBQ, Verhoff-Van Gieson’s

We got the methods and we got the reasons

Chemical analysis and histological stains

Periodic acid-Schiff and Dane’s.

Now this kinda talk is reserved only for bosses

So double-check your stats, we ain’t taking no losses.

Slide boxes, graphs, and endless reading

Let’s have a toast because we are succeeding.

So first things first,

Get out those beakers,

On three, cheers, and shout “Eureka!”


The Lab Girls in the building tonight

Oh what a feeling, I’m feeling life

You don’t even gotta bring your data out

We the lab girls of the year, drinks is on the house

Look at how we’re geeking, we’re gettin’ this down.

You don’t even gotta bring your data out

We the lab girls of the year, drinks is on the house.


Sweet, now, let’s ride it out

We’ll be back in the fall without a doubt.

This is superhero music right here, baby

American Gangsta, Jay-Z, the Real Slim Shady

Taking flight

Here we go

Reaching new heights

Ow ow, baby!


No Fish Were Harmed in the Making of This…Oh. Wait.

The summer has gone by so fast! I guess that time does fly when you’re having fun.

Well. Mostly fun. Some things can get frustrating.

My project this summer (to be continued…fall semester) has involved the study of gill rakers. Specifically, the study of gill rakers across trophic niches.

Gill rakers = bony or cartilaginous spine-like things that are attached to the branchial arches of the fish (branchial arches are the structures that hold the gills!)

Very simplistically, they function like a colander > food particles get trapped and water just flows through.

(Red = food, Blue = water)

The gill rakers also have other cool qualities, like taste buds and mucous cells. But not much is known about their general location on the raker, or what exactly the raker is composed of.

So, since these are feeding structures, my definition of trophic niche = the delicious habit of EATING!

Fish are freaks. This has become the motto of our lab.

It truly is amazing how weird and unique fish are. Seriously. Pretty freaky. I can’t wait to get my own fish for fall semester.

Anyway, to collect data I’ve been doing microdissections and histological (tissue) staining. My results are pretty preliminary right now, but I’ve got the procedure down.

(Some) Things I Have Learned:

–       Microdissections are a good way to raise your blood pressure – good music is a MUST (thank you iTunes Radio – Top 50 Country)

–       Histological staining is like Easter egg staining ramped up 589840%

–       Pandora is a life saver

–       Creative uses for lab equipment

–       Wednesday lunches with all the biology research groups rock

–       While nerve-wracking, the symposium was a very positive and necessary experience


–       The Smithsonian is super, duper awesome

–       A sense of humor is crucial (thank you to my teammates and Dr. Staab)

–       Speaking of Dr. Staab…

Favorite Dr. Staabisms (Or, Things that Dr. Staab Said that I Found Hilarious)

–       These cups are from the civil war

–       You have to look for the sticky-outy parts

–       Just add a goodly amount

–       They’re saying random things, does that mean garden burger?

–       Anything about fonts

–       Jazziest

–       SQUIRREL!

–       Is that gonapodium or are you happy to see me? Wait, I haven’t taken the harassment training yet, does that count?

–       I’m the boss, so listen to me (not meanly, but as a compliment. Somehow)

In Conclusion:

Overall, I am so, so incredibly thankful for this summer. Not only did I learn A LOT of new things about science and the research process, but I got a chance to interact with the professors of my major on levels that transcend the classroom experience in all the good ways. I made new friends and had many laughs.

Beyond that, my passion for my chosen path (thus far) has been rekindled. Within the last year, I was questioning my decision to be a biology major, to pursue a career in the sciences.

This summer made me see past that.

Bringing in some poetry (hang in there), I think these lines perfectly describe what I feel, here at the end of my seven weeks:

“An Horatian Notion” - Thomas Lux

You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.
And with that your heart on a beam burns
through the ionosphere.
And with that you go to work. 

Adventures in Hashawha

Ecological research is certainly full of excitement.

In our pursuit of knowledge, Meghan and I donned our waders, grabbed our nets, and traveled into the mysterious wilds of Lake Hashawha toward our target.

Our target you ask? The majestic dragonfly, or more specifically, their larvae. dragonfly These cricket-esque creatures are one of the top invertebrate predators in these types of aquatic environments, preying upon mosquito larvae, small tadpoles, and each other. Dragonfly larvae live mostly solitary lives, using substrate from their habitat to hide from predators and ambush prey.

Through our adventures in lake Hashawha, we encountered some of life’s most perplexing questions. Can one pull himself out of knee-deep mud pits using a friendly tree branch? Is crawling off of a dock into the mouth of an awaiting fish an evolutionarily advantageous behavior of dragonfly larvae? Do fish actually need water to survive?

That fish was not a happy camper.

That fish was not a happy camper.

Using our nets and a hint of cunning, we captured some larvae and placed them into our high-tech behavioral arenas to study activity level and hiding behavior.

Those are highly sophisticated pool noodles, for your information.

For your information, those are highly sophisticated pool noodles.

With our arenas in the water and our behavioral trials commenced, we could finally begin the most annoying enjoyable aspect of our research; explaining to the countless families visiting Hashawha just what in the world we were doing.