Honours student Madeleine Robitaille talks biology, research, and field work.
Biology student Madeleine Robitaille spent her summer chasing the world famous Bay of Fundy tides. Or more accurately, being chased by the world famous Fundy tides. The Lunenburg native is pursuing a research-based honours in biology under the joint supervision of Dr’s Hamilton and Liefer and spent her summer doing field work and collecting data along the Fundy mudflats.
Her project focuses on mudflat ecology. “Mudflats of the Bay of Fundy are home to many different types of invertebrates and microbes, many of which are photosynthetic (collect their energy from the sun, like plants) and produce organic carbons consumed by other species on the flats. Mudflats are also home to migratory shore birds who stop over during their migration between the Canadian Arctic archipelago and South America. Dr. Hamilton’s work on shorebirds originated the research interest, but my work in Dr. Liefer’s lab has me looking at nutrients levels of the biofilm layer, which is a layer of microorganisms that shorebirds and invertebrates feed on. I am investigating what factors affect the amount of nutrients that are in the biofilm, essentially how much food is available for consumption.”
Robitaille also knew from day one that research and field work would be a part of her life. “Science was a huge part of my upbringing, and research is always something I’ve been interested in.” She said, explaining that Mount Allison’s research-based honours program was a big incentive for her choosing the school, and is helping her shape her choice of grad schools. “This was my first time doing field work, and it was incredible. I got to learn how to prepare and organize a study and think through the experiments. I’ve always been a very outdoorsy person, so a field biology component is really important. I’m looking at going into a field-based masters program, in part due to this honours project.”
When asked about the worst aspect of her research, Robitaille laughed. “I’ve been pretty lucky in that COVID didn’t affect my ability to do field work and conduct my experiments this year,” she said. “I think the most frustrating thing about research is trying to figure something out and it just not working. Trying to figure out the how and why of a problem has led to testing our methods, and ultimately make better scientists!”
Madeleine’s honours study of the mudflats is a continuation of an independent study she pursued last year under the supervision of Dr. Campbell. While her project now focuses on the nutrients contained in the biofilm layer of the mudflats, last year Robitaille worked in the lab, studying carbon levels of the same flats. “Even if you’re not sure you want to do research or an honours, talk to your professors! Profs love talking about their research, and even if you don’t pursue it, it is a great opportunity for connections.” As for Robitaille’s advice to underclass students thinking of pursuing research: “The best advice I got from Dr. Campbell was ‘don’t think about what you want to do, but what you want to learn’, which is why I decided to pursue a field work-based honours. I’d also say definitely talk to upper-year students and honours students, too though. Professors love their research and love talking about their research so they always make it sound really interesting. It’s a good idea to talk to the people actually doing the work everyday, they can tell you what it’s really like.”