Imagine using a small pair of tweezers to open up a tiny bag of potato chips while observing them under a microscope. That is how Westfield State University senior biology major Ruby Metz described aspects of her research that included accessing the embryos of zebrafish, which she conducted in the summer of 2014 at a laboratory at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Under the guidance of her Westfield State biology professor, Kelly Anne McKeown, Ph.D., Metz spent five weeks in a paid internship learning various research techniques on the zebrafish. The research was conducted on behalf of Gerald B. Downes, UMass biology professor, and McKeown’s one-time mentor during her doctoral work at UMass.
For Metz, 21, the opportunity to conduct research in addition to her classroom learning was a bonus to her undergraduate studies.
“It was excellent hands-on experience. These are the kinds of skills that will help build a quality resume,” Metz said. “This research allowed me to apply skills that I had learned about in my classes.”
Part of Metz’s research called for investigating the nervous system of the zebrafish to find what are known as neurotransmitters, called Gamma Aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors. GABA is found in both humans and zebrafish.
In her five years at Westfield State, professor McKeown recognized that students needed basic laboratory skills in order to land jobs or be successful in graduate school after earning their undergraduate degree. During that time she designed a new course called Molecular Biology Techniques to help make students more marketable.
“It’s amazing that Westfield, being a liberal arts college, can provide these kinds of opportunities in the sciences. The university finds research important enough for undergraduates that they provide funding for them,” Metz said. “Westfield is pretty dedicated to providing learning opportunities for students on campus and off.”
In addition, McKeown applied for and received a grant through Westfield State and the state to fund the research work at Downes’ laboratory.
“Through this work the students are learning all these different techniques that would be used no matter which research area they went into in the molecular cellular field,” she said.
Metz had the opportunity to present her findings on the zebrafish research at the Undergraduate Research Conference at UMass in April.
McKeown believes that besides the techniques they learn in the laboratory, undergraduate students could discover early on whether research and graduate school make sense for their future.
“If the students are at least thinking about grad school then this kind of research allows them a peek in the door,” she said.
Kelly Anne McKeown
ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, BIOLOGY DEPARTMENT
Kelly Anne McKeown, Ph.D., has been teaching anatomy and physiology as well as developmental and molecular biology at Westfield State University since 2010.
She got her higher education start in the sciences at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, with Bachelor of Science degrees in physics and physiology. Eventually, she earned a doctorate in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
That is where her laboratory work with zebrafish, a freshwater fish, flourished and continues today. She
has used her connection with her former doctoral advisor at the University of Massachusetts to provide opportunities for her undergraduate students to conduct experiments on the zebrafish and learn laboratory techniques at that school’s labs.
Ruby Metz ’15
Ruby Metz just loves biology and learning of all kinds—a perfect combination for her experiences at Westfield State University.
The senior biology major made the most of her classes and relationships with faculty as she will soon embark on life after Westfield State.
“Westfield has amazing faculty and staff who really care about students and their progress,” she said. “I was lucky to have the experiences I did and to find a close-knit, friendly community.”
Immediately after graduating, she plans to conduct online research for a company in Worcester that develops nutritional ingredients for supplement and personal care products. She is also interested in attending graduate school to earn her physician assistant degree. To prepare for that next phase of her career, Metz is looking into volunteering at a hospital to gain patient care hours.