Summer Research for Science Teacher

Standing in almost frigid waters catching a three-inch fish might not be everyone’s idea of a good time. Still, then again, you might not know Upper School science teacher Graham Hegeman, who has a deep fascination for the stickleback fish. This particular fish, Hegeman described, is known as a supermodel organism because of its use in understanding several questions in biology, including evolution health/parasitology, genetics, and ecology. “ The stickleback is a really interesting species because we have a great understanding of how they evolved, and we also have their gene sequence,” Hegeman said. “We know much about how their genes are related to human genes, and they are really easy to keep in the laboratory.” Stickleback can be found in the tidal part of the Connecticut River, as well as in Long Island Sound. In Alaska, Maine, Canada, and Europe, sticklebacks live in freshwater lakes and ponds. 

This summer, as part of his professional development, Hegeman headed to Lubec, Maine, which is known for its candy-cane lighthouse and has the distinction of being the U.S.’s closest continental location to Africa. He worked with researcher Daniel Bolnick’s lab, which is affiliated with UConn. Graham noted that Bolnick is one of the more well-funded researchers at UConn, receiving grants from the National Insitute of Health and the United Nations. (One of the U.N.’s health priorities for 2022-2023 is parasitic infections.)

According to Bolnick’s website, the lab “seeks to understand how ecological interactions affect the evolution of within-species trait variation. Research in the lab touches on various species interactions and combines theoretical models, natural history, field and lab experiments, and meta-analyses.” Hegeman and crew collected the stickleback for research seeking to uncover how the stickleback in Maine responds to certain parasites. “The idea is that they will have medical applications down the line,” Hegeman said.  “Once we find out how these parasites affect stickleback, we might be able to look at the parasitic infections in humans, especially in places where there is not good water sanitation where parasites are a huge problem like in sub-Sahrahan Africa,” Hegeman said. The UConn researchers are also examining cystic fibrosis and how the stickleback react when parasites infect them, Hegeman explained.

Hegeman said it is difficult to predict the time it takes to find solutions to these diseases, but the funds from the public sector are a tremendous help. Once there is a specific product that targets these illnesses, pharmaceutical companies step in to provide more funding.

Although Hegeman had great fun researching in Maine, his ultimate goal is for the KO students to work with the UConn lab performing dissections, working with the lab at UConn, or collecting some stickleback for UConn. (Connecticut waters host four different kinds of stickleback species.)

“I’m interested in active science related to the real problems that are going on now, ”Hegeman said.  “What I really value from students in the classroom is that they have a scientific understanding rather than specific content knowledge -that they can look at some data and come up with conclusions.”

One thing is certain, a teacher's passion translates into dynamic learning in the classroom.
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Located in West Hartford, CT just steps from Blue Back Square, Kingswood Oxford is a private school inspiring co-ed day students in grades 6-12 with a college preparatory curriculum. Empowered students become clear confident communicators, resourceful problem-solvers, and ethical leaders. KO: where unlimited potential meets endless opportunities.
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