• |
Header Banner

Electro-fishing for samples in the Deschutes River.

A Deep Dive into Freshwater Fish Parasitology

Logan Elkin ’23 is a biology major and religious studies minor spending the early part of summer before his junior year knee-deep in the scenic waterways of Oregon – all in pursuit of a particular “problem” parasite.

It's an adventure that began with a corridor conversation and will culminate when Elkin returns to the St. Norbert campus this month to present at a full-on scientific convention, the 72nd Annual Midwestern Conference of Parasitologists (AMCOP).

The process of biodiversity discovery
The rising junior began his Oregon research with Anindo Choudhury (Biology), along with collaborator and principal investigator Michael Kent of Oregon State University. Together they seek to examine the cause and dynamics of heavy infections by the nematode Eustrongylides sp. in whitefish and brown trout in the Deschutes River drainage.

“Trying to understand how the world functions is honestly the purpose of science,” says Elkin (pictured above with fellow scientists). “What a lot of people don’t know is that there’s so much going on just within freshwater fish, and there are so many areas of interest – not only for understanding the biodiversity of it all, but also what’s going on all around us at all times.” This starts, he says, with being able to appreciate even the most basic of life forms. “Parasites are very small – some even 1 millimeter or less – and a lot of people think very straightforward … but they’re definitely not!

“Awesome. I think that’s probably the best way to describe this type of trip,” says Elkin.

His research trip was funded by the James R. Hodgson Research Fellowship, funded by the Kresge Endowment. Jim Hodgson (Biology, Emeritus) was a long-time member of the biology discipline at St. Norbert until his retirement in 2016.

A parasite by any other name
According to Choudhury, parasites are a very common, very ubiquitous part of the natural diversity of life. “They live – or lead – very secretive lives until they cause a problem, and then they become obvious. But generally they’re hidden inside the organs of the body, sometimes have complex life cycles, and have many different routes by which they get to their hosts … all of that makes for a really complex ecosystem and the diversity of parasites.”

The parasite being studied by the team is actually just one of many that occur in that aquatic system. “There’s a huge unknown diversity,” explains Choudhury. “We don’t really know anything about the Pacific Northwest diversity of fish parasite, so Logan is focused on this one group, which probably has half a dozen different species – and maybe some that have not even been described yet, or not known to science.

“Basically, we’re trying to understand the impact of this one particular roundworm on the fish. We’re discovering things, we’re trying to understand how these parasites are transmitted, we’re trying to understand what effect and impact they have on their fish-eating bird hosts … in a nutshell, that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

But in this process, their research is yielding the discovery of other parasites to bring back for Elkin and the other lab students to study. “There are many more species of parasite that haven’t yet been described. There’s a group that has a lot of different variants, and we’re not really sure how they all relate to each other. So my goal is to determine whether some of the specimens we’ve collected are actually of a different species, if they’re connected to one species but look a little bit different …”

“It’s a lot of spinoff,” adds Choudhury. “From one project you can actually come up with half a dozen mini projects!”

Reaping the rewards of research
“This experience has been such a blessing,” says Elkin. “Being an undergraduate able to research at a high level like this is not only exciting, but also puts you ahead.”

His advice for fellow students considering seeking out a research experience? “What a lot of people might not understand is how easy it is [to find an undergraduate research opportunity]. I met Dr. Choudhury because I studied in the same spot every night. I never had him for a class (up until this past semester), and it was just as easy as striking up a conversation, saying, ‘Hey, what are you having for dinner tonight?’ That’s how it started! And we just grew our rapport.

“I think it comes down to: if you make the right connections and just try to be present in the moment, you can find a lot of things,” says Elkin. “That’s the really cool thing that St. Norbert has to offer. Professors, faculty, students, staff ... they’re all there. They’re not checked out and focused on their own things. They want to be involved. Just knowing that’s there, valuing it and actually seeking it … that’s what’s made this experience the most fun. I’ve been able to get all that I want out of the college experience.”

From professor to pupil, Choudhury shares how wonderful it has been to be a part of his journey. Elkin even recalls the exact date they began working together (“Nov. 9, 2020; it’s in my notebook! Open the first page and it’s right there!”).

“It’s fantastic for me to see Logan’s growth over the last year, from the first day to now … it’s very satisfying,” says Choudhury. “He’s talented, good with his excellent techniques, a fast learner, and quite scholarly in his approach. It’s actually very good to see that.” 

Elkin intends to pursue post-graduate Ph.D. work, likely in the realm of cellular or molecular science. But first he will have an opportunity to present before a forum of his parasitology peers at the 72nd Annual Midwestern Conference of Parasitologists (AMCOP), to be held on campus later this month.

“I’m very excited – and obviously a little nervous, but I think that’s really neat,” says Elkin. “There’s so much to be gained in not only being able to communicate effectively, but also to bounce ideas off other scientists … that’s a really valuable experience many people don’t get at the point I’m at in my career. Just being able to interact with people and have to understand the subject matter they’re presenting on, appreciate what other people are doing … I think that takes a certain level of commitment. I’m very excited to see what comes out of that!

“Just being able to see all the professionals, and a lot of students going to the conference, as well … it’ll be interesting to see their take on their research and what other students around my age are doing,” says Elkin. “To be able to appreciate the level of connection we have to the field, and across other universities, too … that’ll be very fun. And also just to be able to see students from another university! That’s something we’ve definitely missed during COVID-19. I really wish I could have been able to go to conferences and events like that, but it's good to get back to that again.”

July 15, 2021