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York College crayfish study helps local stream, provides real-world experience

Biology students participate in crayfish study with Dr. Bridgette Hagerty.

Can studying the number and lifespan of crayfish in Tyler Run creek prepare York College of Pennsylvania Biology students for practical careers — and improve the local environment?

Yes, say a professor and student of this unique project.

“This study teaches students about collaborating, designing experiments, and communicating science in writing, all practical skills students need to step right out after graduation and get into the workforce,” says Dr. Bridgette Hagerty, Associate Professor of Biology.

“This project gets me in the field and gives me hands on, actual work experience,” agrees student Caitlin Chiaretti. “This gives me a perspective on problems in the environment and how to deal with them.”

Passion for the environment

For Caitlin, literally wading into Dr. Hagerty’s study fits perfectly with her long-time desire to improve the water quality of her home area around Ashland, Pennsylvania, in Schuylkill County, where past coal mining left acid mine drainage.

“In high school, I had a biology teacher who took us outside and engaged with the environment. She told me I had a proclivity for biology,” Caitlin says. “Then, at York College, I got an internship with the conservation district serving Ashland. I worked on improving water quality in abandoned mines with high levels of runoff and with runoff from farms. I found my passion for improving the environment.”

Accompanying her older sister on a York College visit, Caitlin knew then this was the place to follow that passion.

Providing practical experience

“Students go into the creek each week and survey a section,” Dr. Hagerty says. “They use nets to capture, measure and mark crayfish with a non-toxic paint pen, then release them back into the creek.”

The data give a measure of the health of Tyler Run. Seeing a large number of crayfish indicates a healthy stream, and seeing the crayfish previously marked indicates they are surviving well over time, also a good sign.

“This type of study, called mark and recapture, is exactly what conservation biologists do,” Dr. Hagerty says. “The students also learn to analyze their results using specialized computer programs. They can put this on a resume, and when interviewing for a job, say ‘I’ve done these types of studies.’”

Dr. Hagerty’s class builds on a 10-month study of crayfish in Tyler Run that Caitlin did as an independent research project, another plus offered by York College.

“My goal after my research project is to get more vegetation planted in the stream, and trees and vegetation along the stream, to hold soil and help control runoff especially during floods,” Caitlin says. “Leaf litter that falls into the stream from trees also promotes good habitat for crayfish survival.”

Research leads to action

For both of these environmental advocates, their research serves more than just academic purposes.

“My research project and Dr. Hagerty’s class study are unique because Tyler Run had not been studied much previously,” Caitlin says. “Any information learned can be used to improve our own community, because the creek runs right through York College’s campus.”

Caitlin is now writing her final research paper, which will be presented to the York College Biology Department and the school’s administration, with recommendations on ways to improve the stream’s health, and thus the local environment.

“Learning to communicate findings to the public, stakeholders, other scientists, and all different types of audiences, is another important practical aspect of this class,” Dr. Hagerty says. “I’m thrilled Caitlin feels she has the knowledge and information to go to decision makers.”

Impacting herself and others

“Dr. Hagerty is the best person to talk to about environmental issues. When we’re in the creek and see erosion, she’ll come over and talk about what could have led to this and how this will impact the health of the entire environment,” Caitlin says.

“I believe it’s important for class projects to impact the environment where we live,” Dr. Hagerty says. “It’s our home. If we have the ability and understanding, we should give of our time and expertise to make improvements where we live.”

“I hope to work in government and be involved in environmental protection and improvement. This class and my research project got me in the field, and got my hands in the water,” Caitlin says.

Just one more career nugget Caitlin has mined from her time and professors at York College.

Learn more about the Biology program at York College.