Claudia Desjardins: Hands-on lab experience benefits human health in pandemic

University of Maine senior Claudia Desjardins of Bangor pursued a major in animal and veterinary sciences and a minor in mathematics to make a difference in the lives of animals and humans through disease research and prevention. As an undergraduate, she collaborated with UMaine researcher mentors for a study of Maine’s wild turkey population and helped test ticks for pathogens, including Lyme disease.

Ultimately, she discovered her passion for laboratory diagnostic testing — skills that proved particularly important in the midst of the pandemic. 

For fall 2020, she joined UMaine’s COVID-19 wastewater monitoring team, a part of the UMS Scientific Advisory Board focused on providing timely health and safety guidance for Maine’s public universities. The wastewater monitoring team is led by Robert Wheeler, UMaine associate professor of microbiology.

In the Wheeler lab, Desjardins is involved in the initial processing of wastewater samples taken at UMaine, the University of Southern Maine and University of Maine at Fort Kent. Once the samples are purified, the wastewater monitoring team runs a qPCR test that amplifies the nucleic acid of interest, allowing the researchers with the help of special software to detect how many copies of the virus are in the sample through the graph generated by the software. 

This is important in the health and safety needs of our community, Desjardins says, because people can shed the virus before they begin showing COVID-19 symptoms. 

“Asymptomatic transmission is a huge concern with COVID, and by regularly screening our wastewater, we can determine if there is a significant prevalence on campus before we get the chance to test individuals,” Desjardins says. “That way, we’ll know early on if the university needs to take action to prevent further spread on campus.”

It has been exciting to generate and witness this data firsthand, Desjardins says, “and incredibly fulfilling when your work is making a positive impact on the rest of the community.” 

We asked Desjardins to tell us more about her UMaine experience:

Tell us more about your undergraduate research experiences: 
My first research experience began with my senior capstone on reticuloendotheliosis virus (REV) in Maine’s wild turkey population. I joined professor Pauline Kamath’s lab, the Wildlife Disease Genetics Lab, to take on this project. This is where I discovered my passion for diagnostic techniques in a lab setting, especially when it comes to furthering our knowledge on disease — particularly animal diseases. I was able to expand on my skills after accepting a position this summer in the Tick Lab at the UMaine Diagnostic and Research Laboratory, where I do molecular lab testing on ticks for their associated pathogens, including the causative agent for Lyme disease. From there, I met professor Wheeler and joined his lab to conduct the COVID wastewater testing. With current events, I thought it would be exciting to apply my skills to help my school monitor the disease. Now, I work between all three labs this semester, where I am involved with a variety of projects. Additionally, I presented my capstone research on REV at the 2020 UMaine Student Symposium, and received the award for the highest scoring undergraduate presentation in the natural sciences category. 

When did you start working in the Wheeler lab on efforts related to the pandemic? And can you give me a sense of your typical day or week this semester, balancing classes, work in the lab and other UMaine activities?
I started working in the Wheeler lab this August. This semester, I took the equine management class at the J.F. Witter Teaching and Research Center, so some days I am up at 5 a.m. to report to morning horse chores at 7 a.m. Afterward, I was either in the Wheeler Lab or the Tick Lab to begin my benchwork for the day. Once I got to a good stopping point, I attended my remote classes, and then I was back to work. Balancing classes between my three lab jobs has been a challenge, but it’s a good feeling to be busy again after suddenly losing my routine last spring when we went remote.

Why UMaine for you? 
I chose UMaine because the atmosphere was welcoming and familiar, since both of my brothers graduated from here. It was also close to home, so it was a great choice for me.

How would you describe the academic atmosphere and student experience at UMaine? 
The atmosphere here is very supportive and motivating. I have met so many driven students and faculty who I look up to. The people here are always ready to cheer you on.

What other activities, hands-on experience or research opportunities have you been involved in outside of class?
I have studied REV in Maine’s wild turkey population for my capstone, and I have also been involved with research on ticks in Maine and the prevalence of their associated pathogens. I had the opportunity to co-author a manuscript on deer ticks in Maine for the Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases journal. Aside from that, I have been an active member of the German Club since my freshman year, giving me leadership opportunities as the president. As an AVS major, I have been involved with the chores and animal care at the Witter Center, where I had the opportunity to work with the sheep, horses and cows for my hands-on classes. When I was involved in the dairy barn, my days would start as early as 2:45 a.m. for milking, followed by a full day of regular classes. One of the most rewarding experiences I had was assisting with the lambing season in spring 2019 through the Ewe-Maine Icelandics Sheep Club, where I welcomed my ewe’s twins into the world — a ram named Shadow and a ewe named Meadow.

What have you learned from working with/being mentored by Dr. Wheeler, one of UMaine’s leading researchers? 
I learned so much from Dr. Wheeler, such as data analysis with qPCR and how to use the Bio-Rad software. I have also learned from his example about what it takes to be a great leader. Not only is he a highly knowledgeable researcher, but he also truly cares about the progress and success of every student that steps foot into his lab.

Describe UMaine in one word:

At UMaine, there is a contagious “go-getter” attitude from my peers, advisers, and professors. I have met so many people that have inspired me to do better. The motivation from them helped me discover my passion for research and disease prevention in both humans and animals.

What difference has UMaine made in your life?
UMaine has taught me to embrace change and to have an open mind to new opportunities. I also learned that it’s okay to take your time learning about yourself. When I graduated high school, it seemed like everyone expected me to have the rest of my life planned out, but that certainly wasn’t the case. I didn’t enjoy the major I was in, so after my first year I switched into AVS where all these opportunities started popping up. Over the course of four years, I got experience in leadership, event organizing, farming, animal care, lab benchwork and so much more.

What are your plans when you graduate? Where are you headed in your career?  
I finished my coursework in December and am being hired full time to continue and enhance the wastewater testing initiative. I hope that in my career I can continue to make a difference in the lives of animals and humans through disease research and prevention.

Contact: Margaret Nagle,