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PD/A CRSP Aquanews-Winter 2003

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Undergraduates Energize Aquaculture Research

by Roger Harris

t is often assumed that only graduate students have the skills and commitment to make significant contributions to a research program. The approach being taken by the PD/A CRSP Mexico Project at Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco (UJAT) is challenging that assumption.

At UJAT, Wilfrido Contreras-Sánchez, himself a PD/A CRSP-sponsored Masters and Ph.D. graduate, manages a lab focused on aquaculture research. His present interests include the fate of sex change hormones, both in vivo and environmentally, and tilapia-shrimp polyculture. Aside from the quality of work done, what sets Contreras’ lab apart is the large number of undergraduate students participating in the lab’s various research projects.

In December 2002, I asked Contreras about the benefits and challenges of working with so many undergraduates. His replies suggest that other researchers could benefit significantly from adopting his approach.

AQUANEWS: How many undergraduates have you worked with since you became a PD/A CRSP principal investigator?

CONTRERAS-SANCHEZ: At present we have 19 undergraduate students working in the lab. We began with five students, of whom one has finished, another is on leave, and three are still working on projects. Altogether I would say we have worked with about 26 undergraduate students, either wholly or partly supported by CRSP funding.

AQUANEWS:: How does working with a large number of undergraduates influence your research direction and scope?

Members of the Laboratory of Aquaculture at UJAT, Mexico.

Photo by the Laboratory of Aquaculture, UJAT

C-S: First of all, the lab runs because of them. They have a huge impact, comparable with Masters students in the US and are an important influence on the way we address specific questions or problems. We provide them the information and techniques, but many times they come up with new ideas and new topics to work with. They bring a fresh perspective and contribute original ideas, some of which get us working on new projects.

AQUANEWS:: What are the prospects for your undergraduate students? For example, how many go on to graduate studies or go on to careers in aquaculture?

C-S: About a quarter will go on to graduate school. It could be more, but here in Mexico, there are few Masters programs that offer scholarships—there is little funding for postgraduates—and many students are expected to go and work to support their families. But that figure, a quarter, is much higher than the average in Mexico, and many of our students will remain in aquaculture careers. I would say at least eighty percent will stay in aquaculture.

AQUANEWS:: That’s impressive.

C-S: And we have several of our students already working here in Tabasco. One is the manager of the region’s biggest tilapia farm, and two others are in charge of the reproductive biology section of that same farm. We emphasize connecting with the farmers, so our students can go on to work in aquaculture with them.

AQUANEWS:: What are key features of your approach to managing a large number of undergraduates, with their varying interests and strengths?

C-S: Use of lab meetings for communication and feedback is very important, and we have a few graduate students who act as team leaders. But communication is the most important thing. To decide which students are most promising, we focus on those who want to do research. They go through selection and then we pick the best students who want to collaborate on our projects. The students are required to learn about everything—the different research projects and the different species and systems. The average training period is four to six months for students who have already taken classes. Only after that are they allowed to decide what to do. I think that’s something that allows us to work with lots of people with different capabilities and different visions.

AQUANEWS:: And what would you say are significant challenges of working with a large group of undergraduates?

C-S: Again, keeping communication open is very important, and then team work. It’s better now, but at the beginning, we realized it was important to keep communicating, and that was a learning experience! And also we are addressing gender issues so that men and women are able to work well together on teams.

AQUANEWS:: Do you prefer to work with undergraduates compared with graduate students?

C-S: I like to work with both; it’s not a preference. Grad students are more independent, you get more feedback, and they tend to work faster. But here in Mexico, because of funding issues, it is difficult to have many graduate positions—the graduate programs are generally small. Again, it’s partly a cultural difference. In Mexico, recruitment starts with volunteers. Those that enjoy the work and show promise may then be offered a paid position. This is different from the US where the undergraduates working in a lab expect to be paid.

AQUANEWS:: What about your work and lab attracts undergraduate students?

C-S: We have the biggest group in our university, and with us the students feel they can participate in science—they’re part of the research team, and they really learn the topics they’re working on. As they work with farmers a lot, they like getting involved in science research that’s applicable to real life, and they like to take part in the running of the lab, and contributing directly to the research. They know there’s lots of potential to be actively involved. It’s good experience for them. Our lab offers the best potential in our university for hands-on learning experiences. We have the most undergraduate students of any lab here. We also have a variety of projects offering a wide choice of topics. And they’re aware of aquaculture as a promising field of study. We provide students with everything they need for their research—it’s an umbrella for our students. Because of poor support for science many labs can’t do that—a problem in all of Latin America.

AQUANEWS:: What advice would you give to a scientist who is considering working with undergraduate students?

Wilfrido Contreras-Sánchez, Gabriel Real, and Gisela Filigrana discuss the protocol for Artemia nauplii enrichment with steroids used to masculinize fry of the native cichlid castarRica (Cichlasoma urophthalmus).

Photo by the Laboratory of Aquaculture, UJAT

C-S: If you are selective and choose the best, devoting resources to undergraduates can be as beneficial to your work as having grad students. Working with undergraduates is a really great experience and allows us to work in many different fields. They are generally an untapped potential, rarely used in many countries. You end up with students that really want to be in the field [of aquaculture].

AQUANEWS:: Anything else you think might be important or relevant?

C-S: The PD/A CRSP program has changed perspectives in this university, for all students. The students have tremendous learning opportunities and can develop skills in aquaculture research. The program is like an engine, driving things forward, and I think the undergraduates of today will be the main part of that engine in a few years, carrying the momentum. I think a great deal of the success of our undergraduates is due to the support provided by the PD/A CRSP.

AQUANEWS:: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about your experience with undergraduate students. The information is sure to provide valuable insights for many aquaculture researchers and Aquanews readers.

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