Seal of Approval

By Liv Hemond

As I clicked the “submit” button and waited for the results to pop up on my computer screen, I thought over the process that had gotten me to this point. All of the hours of lab work I had done over the previous weeks, preparing and purifying my DNA samples so that they could finally be analyzed. I was about to find out what all my hard work had been for: I was about to find out, basically, if any of this had actually worked.

Liv Hemond working in a laboratory with a pipetteMy name is Liv Hemond, and I’m working in the lab of Dr. Kristina Cammen, whose research aims to understand marine mammal population ecology and evolution. My project involves studying seals, specifically one particular region of their DNA. Scientists have recently noted a trend in seal deaths: while both gray seals and harbor seals live in the waters of the Atlantic, harbor seals are falling ill and dying much more frequently than gray seals are. As the two species have a lot in common from their habitats to their diets, this difference is an important area to investigate. My research was based around one main question: Why is one species more susceptible to disease than the other? The answer, many think, may lie in their DNA.

An animal’s DNA contains information about their physical attributes and capabilities, as well as instructions for keeping the animal as healthy as possible. A region called the MHC is found in animals including mice, humans, and seals, and contains many genes that control an animal’s immune response. I’m studying a portion of the MHC that relates to a cell’s ability to recognize and defend against foreign invaders, like bacteria or a virus. If gray seals and harbor seals have different abilities to resist disease, it could very well be due to genetic differences in their MHC.

Which brings me back to the results my computer showed me, because while I wanted to prove I had been successfully amplifying a part of the MHC, my sequence turned out to be … something else entirely unrelated. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed, as if the two weeks of work I had done to get to that point were all for nothing.

This, of course, is not at all unfamiliar to a scientist, which is something I have come to learn. Your plan might work the first time around, but all too often it won’t. My first day in the lab, Kristina told me, “When you make a mistake, let me know, and we can figure out how to fix it. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.” Mistakes, unexpected results, frustration, and setbacks are all a part of the process.

I realized how many new concepts and techniques I had learned in the past weeks, and how much more I would learn by continuing to work on the project. And I thought about how much studying genetics and marine mammals and ocean health meant to me, and how excited I was to continue trying to figure out answers to my question. I also was not at all alone in this challenge: I had my mentor and two other wonderful students in the lab to provide suggestions, support, and guidance. Research is not a straight path to a clear answer, but this program has given me the skills and confidence to feel that I can tackle and adapt to challenges along the road. I have never felt more in control of my own learning, and it’s empowering.

This blog post was authored by a student participating in the Research Experience for Undergraduates – Accelerating New Environmental Workskills program, which is led by faculty in the Initiative for One Health and the Environmental and funded by the National Science Foundation.  Information in this post does not represent the University of Maine or its faculty.