Ah yes, the end of term. A time where students invariably have loads of assignments due and exams to study for. I had the added complication of having to fly to eastern Canada three times. Fortunately, I had interesting projects to work on.
My classmates and I all came up with grandiose plans, but as in battle, no plan survives the laboratory. This brings me to my first point: Experimental design is very important. Scientists come up with questions then design experiments that control as many variables as possible in order to answer the questions. If the design is poor, it could mean hundreds of hours lost. If the design is good, it will survive with minor alterations.
Personally, I wanted to test how strongly mussels attach to docks and other construction on the ocean. A bit about mussels, they attach themselves to hard surfaces using tough fibers called byssal threads that have a sticky end; the attachment plaque. Each mussel lays dozens of threads, extending their foot out of their shell and secreting protein from the byssal gland found inside of their shell. This process takes only around 3 minutes per thread! Mussels are actually mobile; they can detach, move, and reattach. I wanted to test how well the plaques stuck to different construction materials, aka substrates. My plan was to use a dulled razorblade, to target the plaque portion of the thread, attached to a spring scale in order to measure the relative force necessary to detach the mussels. I set up 120 mussels on the substrates and then flew out east. When I returned four days later, I began testing and immediately found out that the spring scale was not sensitive enough to record the detachment force.
This brings me to my second point: Science is limited by resources and equipment. In every lab across Canada, researchers constantly apply for grants to the point where some feel like they do more proposal writing than research. Without enough money for labour or equipment, impeccable experimental design will not matter. I was short on both time and equipment. I shifted my design and instead counted the number of threads mussels lay on the different substrates, hypothesizing that they would lay more on surfaces they had a hard time attaching to. It turned out that, on average, they lay the same number of threads no matter what surface they are on.
Some interesting observations I made were that mussels would much rather stick to each other than anything else. Dozens of mussels will clump together with only a couple of them holding the group to the substrate. I also saw a couple of isolated mussels that did not attach to the substrate at all, but instead had a dozen threads that attached to themselves. Those must have been some confused mussels.
If you are interested in reading the detailed article about my research, you can read it at the following link:
For more about the specific mussel I studied, Mytilus trossulus, a native species of the British Columbia coast, check out the following links: