Biology major and Honors College student is earning her BS/MAT degree in biology while doing research in population genetics, microbiology, and marine fisheries
It is said that a teacher’s influence extends beyond the classroom into the future. That is certainly true for biology major and Honors College student Alana McGraw ’21 of Plymouth MA. Inspired by her high school teacher, McGraw hopes to work as a biologist in the agriculture industry and eventually become a high school biology teacher herself.
“She exposed us to some of the most current scientific innovations, allowed us to ask our own questions, and helped us relate ideas about the simplest systems to the theories that govern the natural world,” McGraw said about Dr. Kate Shara, her biology teacher at Rising Tide Charter Public High School.
McGraw, who is enrolled in the BS/MAT program and will earn her master’s degree in teaching next year, said she decided to major in biology “to explore the connections between living and nonliving things that make life on Earth possible. Biology seemed like one of the best ways to combine my very broad range of interests, including mathematics, chemistry, anthropology, philosophy, English, and my curiosity for the natural world. And, most importantly, it was very clear to me how biology was a tool that could improve a lot of people’s lives and I wanted to pursue something that would have a direct and positive impact.”
As the recipient of two undergraduate research grants, the Chancellor’s Merit Scholarship, the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship, along with Chancellor’s List honors all eight semesters as a UMassD undergraduate, McGraw clearly found her passion.
Research included a deep-sea survey of Atlantic sea scallops off the coast of MA
McGraw began her first research project during her freshman year studying the health of juvenile and adult Atlantic sea scallops after they were exposed to an apicomplexan parasite.
“The Atlantic sea scallop is a huge part of the New Bedford fishing industry. New Bedford brought in $380 million of sea scallop catch in 2019 alone,” McGraw explains. “When they are infected with this parasite, it starts to degrade the scallop’s abductor muscle (the tasty bit) until the abductor turns into gray mush.”
Fishermen often toss those gray meat scallops back into the ocean, further spreading the parasite. McGraw’s research determined that juveniles were more resilient to the parasite, providing information about which populations to target in mitigating the spread of infections and further loss of scallop catch.
McGraw continued her scallop research as a laboratory technician for the Marine Fisheries Research Group, led by Professor Kevin Stokesbury at SMAST East in New Bedford. For the last two summers, she was part of a team that processed images from a deep-sea survey.
“We identified all of the organisms in the images captured on the seafloor of the Atlantic, but we were specifically focused on identifying and measuring sea scallops. This data is essential for the sustainable fishing of Atlantic sea scallops in New Bedford.”
McGraw was able to go out to sea on one of the surveys on a scallop fishing vessel hundreds of miles off the coast of Massachusetts. She worked with the ship’s technology and helped to troubleshoot problems with the undersea survey equipment.
“It was an unforgettable experience,” McGraw said. “Although I am not a marine biology student, my general biology courses were very helpful for developing the observation skills and memorization strategies needed to identify different species quickly.”
For her honors thesis, McGraw worked in the microbiology lab of Associate Professor Mark Silby to study the interaction between two soil microbes that are able to move on surfaces when mixed together. “We hope to develop a more complete understanding of these complex microbial communities that govern every ecosystem on Earth,” McGraw said. “Once we understand these communities, the ultimate goal is to manipulate them for the betterment of food production, ecosystem health, etc.”
Volunteered with community and campus organizations
While focused on her studies and research, McGraw found time to give back to her community, both on- and off-campus. She worked with the Center for Women, Gender and Sexuality and volunteered off-campus with a women’s resource center researching mass incarceration of women in America, and with the Buzzards Bay Coalition testing water quality in New Bedford.
She has represented the Biology Department to undeclared students choosing a major and was one of just three students who worked with a small group of faculty to develop a new plan and curriculum for the Honors College.
“Our goal is for Honors College students to work with faculty as ‘junior colleagues’ to develop the Honors learning experience. Alana was a wonderful partner in this respect,” said Professor and Director Catherine Villanueva Gardner.
“My experiences at UMass Dartmouth have been very fulfilling,” said McGraw. “I was pleasantly surprised by how many opportunities were presented to me as a UMass Dartmouth Honors College student. I was able to develop a great community of friends in the Honors College, and we were all able to support each other throughout our four years of undergraduate education.
“Everyone that I have met at UMassD has been kind and supportive. I am very happy with my decision to attend this school. I have learned so much from my peers and the fantastic faculty.”
McGraw is continuing her research while student teaching
As a student in the BS/MAT program McGraw is currently earning her master’s degree in teaching simultaneously with her undergraduate degree in biology and minor in mathematics. The program provides the opportunity to take graduate teaching classes during the senior year.
She is a substitute middle and high school teacher at her alma mater for subjects ranging from science to Latin. She also tutors high school students as well as UMassD students through the STEM Learning Lab.
McGraw plans to continue doing research in Dr. Silby’s lab while completing her master’s degree. She is considering enrolling in a PhD program in biology with research opportunities before beginning a career as a researcher in the agricultural industry. After spending time working in industry, she ultimately wants to become a high school biology teacher, just like the educator who inspired her.
“I believe that teaching is one of the most difficult and essential professions in our society,” McGraw said. “For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to help others learn. I want my career to have a positive impact on the world, and teaching is one of the most powerful ways to do that.”