Meet Maine-eDNA: Zachary May, Graduate Research Assistant

By Attis Bielecki, ME EPSCoR Student Writer

Zachary May is a first year Ph.D. student under Maine EPSCoR’s Maine-eDNA program. His advisors include Graham Sherwood from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and Rachel Lasley-Rasher, an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Since 2012, May has worked as an observer, primarily through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS). This provided him with the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of field research.

Once he received his Bachelor’s degree from the University of New England in 2012, he traveled to Alaska to participate in the Gulf of Alaska Bering Sea Observer program. This was where he spent the next three years, while also doing side research on sea turtles off the coast of Central America and Hawaii. It’s work that appeals to him even to this day.

“I like doing the dirty work. I like being out on the boat and collecting all the samples,” May says. “I wouldn’t have gone out to the Bering Sea of Alaska, if I didn’t think I could handle it.”

After that excursion, May “got back into the game” with NOAA and NMFS as a fishery observer along the Gulf of Mexico. From there he went on to get his Master’s degree at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.

“I did deep sea research on groups of fishes and studied phylogenetic relationships,” May explains. However, he felt the need to return to Maine to continue his work.

“It’s a very pleasant surprise that I get to be back in this state, doing what I love for sustainable fisheries and resource management,” May expressed.

This led into his current research, where he works on multiple projects. For his thesis dissertation, his primary focus is on the validation or verification of eDNA, also known as environmental DNA.

“It’s relatively straightforward to say that everything admits DNA into the water column when we’re talking about fish, phytoplankton, or anything like that,” he explains. “What we’re really doing is taking water samples and then validating the samples we have and going through an extraction process to get to what we’re actually catching and observing.” This process then allows him to see what the environment is like through eDNA and compare it to what he’s able to catch.

The main goal is to see if what they catch is what is seen through their eDNA analysis. It doesn’t matter what comes up as long as it matches what they find, be it schools of herring or squid.

“[The eDNA collection] gives us big indications on whether or not there’s large recruitment, which is the overseas analogy of certain species in the estuary of the Casco Bay,” May says.  “And that biomass abundance will correlate with that versus what we see in alewife and herring migration patterns as well.”

It proves difficult work, but May finds it all enduring. “I’d love to stay in this research game. I’d love to go out and do my data collection, and my advisors will hopefully attest to me not being one to succumb to those challenges,” May says. “The more challenges, the better I do, and the more innovative I get.”