Student point of view on researching microbes, flying squirrels, and mice around farms in Maine

Five women taking a photo together at a farm.  They are standing a few feet apart from each other, and standing in front of a cow feedlot with two cows eating.

This summer, a collaborative project was launched by the Ishaq Lab, Danielle Levesque, and Pauline Kamath at UMaine Orono and Jason Johnston at UMaine Presque Isle; “Climate Change Effects on Wild Mammal Ranges and Infectious Disease Exposure Risk at Maine Farms.”

Funded by the University of Maine Rural Health and Wellbeing Grand Challenge Grant Program, this project assesses pathogen carriage by mice and flying squirrels on or near farms in several locations in Maine. We live-capture mice and flying squirrels in traps, collect the poop they’ve left in the trap, and conduct a few other health screening tests in the field before releasing them. To maximize the information we collect while minimizing stress and interference to the animals, information is being collected for other projects in the Levesque Lab at the same time. We will be collecting samples for another few weeks, and then working on the samples we collected in the lab over the fall and winter.

One of the major goals of the funding program, and this project, is to engage students in research. After a few months on the project, some of our students describe their role and their experiences so far…


A close-up of a deer mouse sitting in a live capture trap in the forest.  In the background is one of the researchers kneeling on the ground.

Marissa Edwards

Undergraduate in Biology

Levesque Lab

Hi! My name is Marissa Edwards and I am an undergraduate research assistant with Danielle Levesque. This summer, my role has been to set traps, handle small mammals, and collect fecal and tissue samples from deer mice.

A pine marten sitting in a live capture trap in a forest.

One of the skills I’ve learned this summer is how to properly ear tag a mouse. To catch mice, we set traps across UMaine’s campus as well as other parts of Maine, including Moosehead Lake, Flagstaff Lake, and Presque Isle.

During our trip to Moosehead Lake, I saw a marten for the first time (it was in one of our traps). I did not know martens existed and initially thought it was a fisher cat. It was both a cool and terrifying experience!


Northern flying squirrel sitting on a net with a forest in the background.

Elise Gudde

Master’s Student of Ecology and Environmental Sciences

Levesque Lab

Hello, my name is Elise Gudde, and I am currently a master’s student at the University of Maine in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences program. I work in Dr. Danielle Levesque’s lab studying small mammal physiology in Maine.

Northern flying squirrel sitting on a net with a forest in the background.

This summer, as a part of the squirrel project, I work to trap small mammal species in Maine, such as white footed mice, deer mice, and flying squirrels in order to determine which species have shifted their range distributions as a result of climate change. Being a part of the research team, this summer has brought me all over Maine! I have been able to travel to Orono, Greenville, New Portland, and Aroostook County to study many interesting mammals. I even got to handle an Eastern chipmunk for the first time! As a member of the animal-handling side of the research team, I also collect fecal and tissue samples from the animals. These samples are then handed off for other members of the team to research in the lab!


Rebecca French wearing a white laboratory coat, a fabric face mask, and beige latex gloves while using a yellow plastic loop tool to spread bactrial cultures on fresh agar media plates to look for growth.  Rebecca is sitting at a biosafety cabinet with the glass window slide down between her and what she is working on.  Assorted scientific materials can be seen in the background.

Rebecca French

Undergraduate in Animal and Veterinary Sciences

Ishaq Lab

In the beginning of this project, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I began researching flying squirrels and mice. I came into it with almost no in-person lab experience, so I had a lot to learn.

So far, I have been focusing on making media on petri dishes for culturing bacterial growth and after plating fecal bacteria on said plates; discerning what that growth can be identified as.

We are using media with specific nutrients, and colored dyes, and certain bacteria we are interested in will be able to survive or produce a color change. I have also been performing fecal flotations and viewing possible eggs and parasites under a microscope. What I’ve found most fun about this project is putting into practice what I have learned only in a classroom setting thus far. It is also very satisfying to be a part of every step of the project; from catching mice, to making media, to using that media to yield results and then to be able to have a large cache of information to turn it all into a full fledged project.


Joe Beale, posing for a photo in an open office space.

Joe Beale

Undergraduate in Animal and Veterinary Sciences

Kamath Lab

Hello! My name is Joseph Beale, and I am an undergraduate at the University of Maine working on the squirrel project as a part of my capstone requirement for graduation. My primary responsibility in this project is the molecular testing of samples obtained from the field. Primarily I will be working with ear punch samples taken from flying squirrels and field mice. DNA extracts from these field samples will be run via qPCR. The results of this qPCR will tell us if these squirrels are carrying any pathogens. 

The pathogens we will be testing for are those found in Ixodes ticks. The qPCR panel which we will be running the extracted DNA from the ear punches on tests for Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease, Anaplasma phagocytophilum, the causative agent of anaplasmosis, and Babesia microti, the causative agent of Babesiosis. These pathogens and respective diseases discussed are all transmitted through Ixodes ticks. Deer ticks are the most common and famous of the Ixodes genus. The Ixodes genus encapsulates hard-bodied ticks. Along with deer ticks, Ixodes ticks found in Maine include: woodchuck ticks, squirrel ticks, mouse ticks, seabird ticks, and more. Mice and squirrel are ideal hosts for these Ixodes ticks, therefore becoming prime reservoirs for these diseases. In our research, we are interested in determining the prevalence of these diseases in squirrels and mice as these hosts can spread these diseases to humans and other animals in high tick areas. 

qPCR, quantitative polymerase chain reaction, allows for the quantification of amplified DNA in samples.  This will help tell us if these pathogens are present in samples and in what capacity. In qPCR provided DNA strands are added to the reaction. These strands match with the genome of the intended pathogens. If the pathogens are present in our samples, the provided DNA strands will bind to the present pathogen DNA. PCR will then work to manufacture billions of copies of this present pathogen DNA. 

When not working on this project, I also work in the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Diagnostic Research Laboratory as a part of the Tick Lab. In this position I have honed the molecular biology skills that I will in turn use for the squirrel project. 


Yvonne Booker

Undergraduate, Tuskeegee University

Levesque Lab

Microbes and the Mammalian Mystery“, reblogged from the University of Maine REU program.

Hello everyone! My name is Yvonne Booker and I am a rising senior, animal and poultry science major at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. I am interested in animal health research, with a particular focus in veterinary medicine. I’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian, but as I progressed throughout  college, I became interested in learning more about animal health and how I might help animals on a much larger and impactful scale–which led me to the REU ANEW program. Currently climate change is causing an increase in global temperatures, putting pressure on animals’ ability to interact and survive within their environment. Consequently, scientists are now attempting to understand not just how to prevent climate change, but how these creatures are adapting to this emerging challenge.

My research experience this summer is geared toward addressing this global issue. I am currently working in Dr. Danielle Levesque’s Lab, which aims to study the evolutionary and ecological physiology of mammals in relation to climate. My project involves conducting a literature review of the microbiome of mammals, to learn more about how their microbial community plays a role in how they adapt in a heat-stressed environment.

Our knowledge of vertebrate-microbe interactions derives partly from research on ectotherms. While this research paves the path for a better understanding of how organisms react to temperature changes, fewer studies have focused on how mammals deal with these extreme temperature shifts—specifically, the abrupt surge in climate change. The ability of endotherms to  thermoregulate alters our knowledge of (1) how mammals create heat tolerance against these environmental challenges and (2) how this internal process alters mammals’ adaptability and physiology over time. We suggest that the microbiome plays an essential part in understanding mammals’ heat tolerance and that this microbial community can help researchers further understand the various processes that allow mammals to survive extreme temperatures.

As a student of the REU ANEW program my goal was to go out of my comfort zone and study animals in an applied fashion that would impact animal health on an environmental and ecological scale; and this program was just that! My mentor, Dr. Levesque was wonderful in guiding me through conducting this research, while giving me the independence to create my own voice. The program directors, Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner and Dr. Kristina Cammen, have also  been extremely supportive throughout this entire program equipping students with the tools they need to succeed as researchers. Although research was my primary focus this summer, some of my favorite memories involved building community with the students and the staff. From weekly check-ins on zoom to virtual game nights of complete smiles and laughter, this program has been one for the books! The One Health and the Environment approach to this Research Experience for Undergraduate students has encouraged me to build on my curiosity within the field of science, and I’m looking forward to applying what I’ve learned to my career in the future.

Rumening through camel microbes, by Myra Arshad

Written by Myra Arshad

Myra Arshad

Did you know that camels have three stomach chambers or that they have to throw up their own food in order to digest their food properly? Have you felt excluded from science spaces before? Then this blog post is for you!

Allow me to introduce myself. 

My name is Myra, and I am a rising senior at SUNY Stony Brook University, where my major is Ecosystems and Human Impact, with a biology minor. In a nutshell, my major is interdisciplinary with a focus on conservation and ecology within human societies. 

If I were to describe my college experience in one word I’d pick “surprises”. I never actually saw myself being a scientist in my middle and high school years. I found it hard to care about abstract concepts or theories that felt so far removed from humanity, particularly minority communities. But, during college I found myself falling in love with environmental studies, and along with it, the beautiful complexities that come with being human in our increasingly anthropogenic world. 

At UMaine, we focus on the One Health Initiative, which views the health of humans, animals, and the environment as interconnected. When COVID-19 caused everyone to go into lockdown, I was fortunate to find this farm was looking for crew members, with a focus on food security. While certainly not how I planned to spend the summer of 2020, farming for underserved communities is where I saw how impactful One Health was. Organic farmers commonly use plastic mulch as a popular alternative to pesticides for weed suppression. At my home institution, I lead a project on the impacts of microplastics on earthworm health, an Ecotoxicology lab (students of the lab affectionately gave it the nickname “the Worm lab”).  We use earthworm health as an indicator of soil health, which in turn is crucial for crop flourishment. The Worm Lab and farming emboldened me to pursue science and, ergo, look for this REU! 

At UMaine, I am a member of the Ishaq Lab where I work on the camel metagenome project. Basically, scientists in Egypt raised camels on different diets, then used samples from their feces to sequence their microbial genome. These microbes live in the camel rumen (part of the camel stomach), and help the camel digest their food. What I do with Dr. Ishaq’s lab is, I perform data analysis on these sequences to see how the microbial gene profile changes with different diets. Camels are essential for transportation and food for the communities that rely on them, so finding the most efficient feed for them is important. Camels also release methane depending on their diet so it’s possible humans could control methane production of camels through their diet. 

Being a part of the REU ANEW program for 2021 definitely has been an interesting experience, since it is the first time this program has been conducted virtually. Even though I would have loved to have seen everyone in person and spent time in lovely Orono, Maine, I’m glad for the research opportunity as it has further solidified my love of research and the One Health initiative.

Myra’s poster for the REU Research Symposium, virtual, Aug 13, 2021.

Nick Hershbine is awarded UMaine Undergraduate Student Employee of the Year award!

Nick Hershbine, undergraduate student majoring in Ecology and Environmental Sciences in the Ishaq Lab has been awarded a 2020-2021 University of Maine Undergraduate Student Employee of the Year!!!!

Nick Hershbine, collecting soil using a soil corer in a low bush blueberry field, with a pone forest in the background.

Nick began working with me in summer 2020, on a collaborative project looking at microbes in the soil around low bush blueberry plants. At the time, he was early in his undergraduate program and having no prior laboratory skills. In addition, because of the pandemic, we have minimized interactions between students, such that Nick has primarily been working independently with occasional meetings with me to discuss his progress. Despite all of that, he has exceeded my expectations for his capacity to handle this tricky project, and more than that, to have the independence to make it his own and contribute to protocol development. Nick has had a positive impact on the lab, within the confines of the limited interactions between students allowed at this time.  He is kind and friendly, and makes the lab a welcoming place to work. Congrats on the award!!

A close-up picture of petri dishes containing a light yellow film of microbes.

Rebecca received an undergraduate research award!

Rebecca French, an undergraduate researcher in Animal and Veterinary Science, is beginning her time in the Ishaq Lab with an auspicious start: she has been awarded a 2021 research award from the J. Franklin Witter Undergraduate Research Endowment Fund! The fund supports AVS undergraduate student involvement in faculty supervised research which involves the J. Franklin Witter Teaching & Research Center.

Rebecca’s project will involve zoonotic disease tracking in rodent populations that live near farms/human development versus those which live in more natural areas, and will take place at the Witter farm and a paired natural ecosystem. Her project is part of a larger collaboration between myself and a team of researchers, which was recently funded by the University of Maine, but which has not yet been announced (details soon).

Rebecca formally joined my research lab in February of this year, but I have had the pleasure of teaching her in my data analysis class since January, which will be a handy skillset later in the project. She also learn and perform microbial culturing, qPCR, Sanger sequencing, and even some animal trapping, handling, and identification; mammal physiology data collection and analysis.

Rebecca French

Undergraduate Researcher, Animal and Veterinary Sciences

Rebecca is an animal and veterinary science student with a concentration in pre-veterinary medicine. She joined the Ishaq lab team in 2021 as a part of her capstone project, which is focused on flying squirrels and mice that are carrying zoonotic pathogens into Maine.

Emily awarded an undergraduate research fellowship!

The very first Ishaq Lab undergraduate researcher, Emily Pierce, has also been awarded the first fellowship of the Ishaq Lab!

Emily has been awarded a Faculty Fellows Research Assistantship for spring 2021 from the University of Maine Center for Undergraduate Research (CUGR)! The $1200 award will provide funds for salary to Emily and research materials, and will support her project for her AVS Capstone Experience (selected Capstone project summaries are here, but Emily’s is not included).

Portrait of Emily Pierce

Emily joined the lab in early 2020 to work on a project investigating calf health and gut microbes, but very soon after joining the lab, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic emerged and changed the way we were able to interact on campus. Without missing a beat, Emily shifted her efforts from helping me wrangle the lab renovations and sorting out our inventory, to helping me improve my teaching materials, to diving deep into previous literature to dig up protocols for her experiment in 2021: “Ideal Conditions for Cryptosporidium Attachment and Infection.

We’ll be performing the experiment itself over the winter break, and then using the spring to analyze the data and write them up. As part of the CUGR award, Emily will be presenting her work at the 2021 Student Symposium in April, which will be held virtually this year. You’ll have to wait till then to get more details!

A very close-up image of a small, dark brown mouse perched on the arm of a graduate researcher wearing a surgical gown.

The first mouse study involving the Ishaq Lab begins!

Mice have arrived for a collaborative project on diet, gut microbes, and health in conjunction with researchers at Husson University! This is the first mouse project for the Ishaq Lab, and also my first hands-on mouse project (in my previous publications with mice, I received datasets but the mouse work was performed solely by my collaborators).

This is one of my first new collaborations at the University of Maine, which began in September 2019 as I was just finding my way around campus. An established researcher at Husson University, Dr. Yanyan Li, reached out to welcome me and talk about overlap between our work. Yanyan, her husband Dr. Tao Zhang, also a researcher at Husson University, and collaborator Dr. Grace Chen at Michigan State University, had been working on beneficial compounds found in broccoli using mice as an experimental model for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Over the past year, in consultation with IBD experts Drs. Gary Mawe and Peter Moses (who I worked with previously while at UVM!), we have written several proposals for funding to expand the project.

Johanna Holman worked for several years with Yanyan and Tao, as an undergraduate researcher and then as a research assistant. She joined the Ishaq Lab this fall to continue her work as a graduate student and add gut microbiology to her skill repertoire. This experiment will form the base of her graduate thesis, and Johanna is taking a lead role in managing the project as well as several undergraduate researchers, including Dorien Baudewyns, assisting with the mice and lab work. As an early career researcher, and new to mice, I’m extremely lucky to be able to learn from an experienced team of researchers!

Reblog: “Animal and veterinary sciences seniors: Capstone stories”

Starting this fall, I have been teaching the UMaine Capstone Experience courses for Animal and Veterinary Sciences students (AVS 401 and 402). To complete the University of Maine requirements for graduation, students must participate in a Capstone Experience to knit together the work of their undergraduate degree into a cohesive project. AVS students are required to part pate in research under researcher mentorship. Some of those students felt comfortable sharing short descriptions of their project. The slightly edited summaries and my intro were posted to the University of Maine news page for teaching experience updates.

All 3 UMaine undergrads in the Ishaq Lab made Dean’s List Spring 2020 !

Congratulations to all three University of Maine undergrads in the Ishaq Lab for making the Dean’s List in Spring 2020: Jade Chin (AVS), Nicholas Hershbine (EES), and Emily Pierce (AVS)!!

Note, the Bowdoin Dean’s List is announced annually in the fall.

2019 review one of Indoor Air’s top downloaded articles for 2018 – 2019!

A collaborative review article that I was last author on was listed in the top 10% most downloaded papers of 208/2019 in the journal Indoor Air! Even more impressive, this review was published August 20, 2019, and it was still in the top 10% spanning from January 2019 – December 2019!!

This paper stems from my work on the microbiology of the built environment at BioBE, and reviews the interaction between chemistry, microbiology, and health in the built environment. It was co-authored and led by undergraduate students I was mentoring at the time, as well as research associates and PIs from the BioBE lab, and a variety of fabulous collaborators!

From one species to another: A review on the interaction between chemistry and microbiology in relation to cleaning in the built environment

Application open for the Microbial Friends & Foes Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Summer Program at Cornell.

Poster describing The Cornell Institute of Host-Microbe Interactions and Disease (CIHMID) program for Microbial Friends and Foes Summer Program.

“The Cornell Institute of Host-Microbe Interactions and Disease (CIHMID) is accepting applications for the NSF-funded Microbial Friends & Foes Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Summer Program (bit.ly/REU-CIHMID).  Applications are due February 1, 2020.

The Microbial Friends & Foes Program will take place from June 8 to August 14, 2020.  The program will provide training in the concepts and experimental approaches central to understanding microbial interactions with eukaryotic hosts.  Students will learn about broad diversity of microbe-eukaryote interactions through conducting independent research projects, participation in weekly research group meetings, seminars presented by CIHMID faculty, Microbial Friends & Foes Synthesis Panels, CIHMID Summer Symposium, and Microbial Friends & Foes Poster Session. Emphasis will be placed on appreciation of the scientific method and developing effective strategies for conducting research as well as on the synthesis of concepts important to interspecific interactions across diverse systems.  In addition, workshops in electronic database literacy, science citation software, research ethics, science communication, and planning for graduate study will be offered to the Microbial Friends & Foes program participants. Students will receive a stipend of $6000, travel subsidy, meal allowance and on-campus housing.  Applicants will be asked to identify 3 laboratories of interest, and will be selected in a two-step review process by the program organizers and potential mentors. A flyer describing the program is attached and more information can be found at bit.ly/REU-CIHMID.

WHO SHOULD APPLY

*All undergraduate students interested in understanding microbial interactions with eukaryotic hosts.

*Members of minorities underrepresented in science, undergraduates from small colleges, and first-generation college students.

*Applicants must be United Stated citizens or permanent residents and at least 18 years old.”