You’ve seen plenty of bumper stickers urging people to save the whales. But what about the lobsters?
In the ocean, lobster larvae have a survival rate of less than 0.1 percent in the first three months. It’s a wonder any full-grown lobsters make it to the trap, let alone the dinner table. Aquaculturists have tried to raise crustaceans in captivity, but there’s a bit of a problem with that: lobsters are cannibalistic. And to keep the babies separated is cost-prohibitive.
Bob Bayer, director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, figured there needed to be a better solution, so in early 2009, he turned to biological engineering professor David Neivandt and undergraduate researcher Ryan Dawes.
Neivandt — whose primary research focuses on the transport of certain proteins linked to cancer and other diseases across cell membranes — has a reputation on campus for working on unusual problems. Dawes, a senior biology major and honors student who has worked in Neivandt’s lab since his freshman year, has a reputation on campus as a conscientious, curious researcher.
With the help of the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education, working with Brian Beal in Beals, Maine, and a Maine Technology Institute seed grant, they’re testing a simple, innovative procedure. They’re using discarded clamshells as small-scale hatcheries, sealing them with a biodegradable polymer and etching them with notches to allow the flow of food — algae.
Though their early trials have had mixed success, the process has been a tremendous learning experience for Dawes. The logistics alone — perfecting the shell notches and transporting shells seeded with living larvae to a field station several hours away from campus — have been an eye-opener.
“I’ve learned how to plan an experiment, how to collaborate with others, and how to keep an ultimate goal in mind without getting bogged down in the research,” Dawes says.
Since his high school days in Belgrade, Maine, Dawes wanted to participate in research. He knew that hands-on experience would bolster his graduate school applications, and he found that it improved his work ethic, as well.
“I always thought of myself as a hard worker before coming to college, but the demands of the actual coursework and being employed in a lab were quite a shock,” Dawes says. “Because of how busy I was, and because I had graduate students and Dave (Neivandt) to look up to, I became a much better student.”
Over the years, Neivandt has become a trusted mentor and friend, and on the drive to and from Beals, Dawes was able to use him and Bayer as a sounding board for his career choice.
“I want to pursue a Ph.D. and become a professor partly because of that conversation,” Dawes says.
Image Description: Ryan Dawes