2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Projects Biology

The following are research projects that Biology Department Supervisors are looking to find undergraduate students to participate in, Summer 2021.  These are not the only possible Biology Department projects for these Summer Fellowships- you are encouraged to contact Biology Department supervisors with your own project ideas as well.

Dr. Erin Bertrand 
Associate Professor of Biology

Lab Website

Cobalamin production in the future ocean

Cobalamin, or vitamin B12, is required by approximately 50% of cultured eukaryotic phytoplankton species and has the potential to limit primary production in various ocean regions, including the Northwest Atlantic. Cobalamin is unique from other micronutrients because it is produced biologically by only a subset of heterotrophic bacteria and archaea. The abiotic factors that control cobalamin production by these organisms are still poorly understood. The objective of this project is to determine effect of temperature on cobalamin production in bacteria that were recently isolated from the Northwest Atlantic.

The successful student will gain skills in: Sterile culturing technique and microbial culture maintenance, bacterial plating, assessing bacterial growth, semi-continuous culturing, flow cytometry, absorbance spectrophotometry, metabolite extraction, mass spectrometry analysis, experimental design

The response of phytoplankton proteomes to environmental change

Like all other organisms on Earth, phytoplankton rely on proteins to carry out life-sustaining metabolic functions. We currently have a limited understanding of how these proteins vary in type and abundance under different environmental conditions. This project will focus on identifying and measuring specific proteins used by phytoplankton to survive in a changing ocean. The project will be multidisciplinary and will involve both computational work (e.g. database searching using bioinformatic algorithms) and laboratory experiments.

The successful student will gain skills in: Phytoplankton culturing, microscopy, flow cytometry, protein digestion methods, mass spectrometry-based proteomics methods, bioinformatics.

Dr. Ramón Filgueira
Assistant Professor in the Marine Affairs Program, Adjunct in Dept of Biology

Filgueira Lab Website


Exploring the relationship between bivalve gaping, feeding, and respiration

Bivalves are ecosystem engineers, valuable economic resources, and sentinel species used to monitor ecosystem status. Despite the plethora of literature on bivalve behaviour and physiology, some fundamental questions regarding the relationships between bivalve gaping (behaviour), and feeding and respiration (physiology) remain unanswered. This project will use novel technology capable of detecting micro-valve movements at microsecond frequencies and the Aquatron capabilities to fill these knowledge gaps, advance our understanding of these species and develop real-time monitoring tools. (Note: Field deployment will depend on covid-19 restrictions and related logistics).

The successful student will gain skills in:

Animal behaviour, animal physiology, valve gaping, bivalve feeding, metabolic rate, Hall effect, particle counter, oxymeter, aquarium maintenance, Aquatron experience.

Dr. Arunika Gunawardena
Professor of Biology




Extraction of Anthocyanin from the Aquatic Monocot Aponogeton madagascariensis

The lace plant (Aponogeton madagascariensi) is an aquatic monocot native to Madagascar that forms perforated leaves via developmentally regulated Programmed Cell Death (PCD). Due to the high presence of anthocyanins (antioxidants), the lace plant is currently being studied for its anti-cancer and other medicinal properties. To facilitate these studies, this project will require the propagation of sterile plants and the extraction of crude anthocyanin from different stages of leaf development, corms, and flowers.

The successful student will gain skills in: Sterile tissue culture techniques for lace plant propagation; crude anthocyanin extraction using nitrogen stream method and quantification using spectrophotometry.

Microscopy analysis of lace plant development

The lace plant (Aponogeton madagascariensis) is aquatic, native to Madagascar, and exhibits a unique pattern of predictable perforations throughout its leaves via developmentally regulated Programmed Cell Death (PCD). Previous work has been done to establish regulators of the perforation formation process. This project will build upon that research by creating computational models to form predictions about how the process occurs based on data collected through microscopy and pharmacological experiments.

The successful student will gain skills in: Sterile tissue culture technique for lace plant propagation, media preparation, microscopy, and live-cell imaging

Induction of flowering in lace plant

The lace plant (Aponogeton madagascariensis) is an aquatic monocot species that has emerged as a model for studying developmental programmed cell death (PCD). Current lab propagation systems are time-consuming and costly. There is much interest in the induction of inflorescence for seed harvest and convenient propagation. This project would involve growing lace plant in multiple environments to determine optimal conditions for inflorescence induction.

The successful student will gain skills in: Establishing and maintaining aquarium environments, monitoring/collecting plant growth data under different environmental conditions

Dr. Mark Johnston
Professor of Biology 

Johnston Lab Website


Reproductive and Genomic Evolution in a Geographically Widespread Plant
Hummingbird-pollinated cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) has one of the largest natural geographic ranges of plants in North America, occurring from southern Canada to Central America. Populations in different parts of the range often do not share pollinators and are genetically isolated. This species therefore offers an exceptional opportunity to address fundamental topics in evolution including (1) evolution of sexual conflict, (2) evolution of genome size and repetitive elements, (3) causes of post-mating reproductive isolation among populations and (4) optimal male and female sex-phase duration.  

The successful student will gain skills in: several areas and with emphasis depending on the project. Skills include quantification of seed size (project 1), characterization of genomic repetitive elements (project 2), dissection and microscopy of developing seeds (project 3) and quantifying sex-phase duration in an existing dataset with the opportunity for developing optimality models (project 4); students for all projects will improve skills in data analysis and, depending on interest, the care and maintenance of plants.

Dr Julie LaRoche 
Professor of Biology

Lab Website


How do phytoplankton help non-photosynthetic nitrogen fixing bacteria grow?

Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) is an important process both in land and in the ocean that reduces N2 gas to ammonia, a form of nitrogen that is readily assimilated by plants and phytoplankton and has the potential to relieve nitrogen deficiency. Nitrogen fixation is carried out by a group of special microbes that are difficult to isolate and grow in pure culture. Especially, non-photosynthetic nitrogen-fixing bacteria are increasingly being recognized as an important source of nitrogen in the world’s oceans. We have isolated one of those rare nitrogen-fixing bacterium in culture. However, our understanding of the carbon sources that these microbes use and their relationships with phytoplankton is still poorly understood. This project will examine the role of glycolate (a carbon source that is produced by dying phytoplankton blooms) and how it effects an important heterotrophic diazotroph newly isolated from the Bedford Basin. The summer intern will work closely with a PhD student to measure the growth rate of the novel bacterium grown with glycolate and other organic carbon sources found in nature.

The successful applicant will gain skills in: General laboratory work, general microbiology theory, microbe culturing, flow-cytometry, proteomic and metabolomics sample collection, ocean nutrient data collection, and data visualization in R.

Phytoplankton symbiosis: Capturing the interaction between a tiny cyanobacterium and a haptophyte alga in the North West Atlantic

One of the most active nitrogen-fixing cyanobacterium is a tiny symbiont (nicknamed UCYN-A) attached to a haptophyte alga. This symbiose is found throughout the world's ocean but is also active in the North West Atlantic Ocean and the Bedford Basin.  This project is aimed the study of this unusual symbiosis in the laboratory and in the field, starting with the screening of a collection of environmental water samples to isolate and propagate the symbiont and its host, with the goal to learn more about the physiology of the haptophyte host. Using previously obtained samples of mixed microbial diversity, the student involved in this project will work closely with a PhD student to isolate and cultivate this symbiont-host consortium and other haptophytes. The student will also be involved in weekly sampling in the Bedford basin time-series that we have used to follow the presence of the symbiont-host complex throughout the summer months.

The successful applicant will gain skills in:General laboratory work, general microbiology and molecular biology theory, microbe culturing, media preparation, microscopy (including fluorescence), DNA extraction/sequencing, qPCR techniques, community sequence analysis, and data visualization in R.

Effect of heatwaves on the marine microbial community, with special emphasis on phytoplankton.

Global warming is expected to sustain longer heatwaves across Canada in the upcoming years, but little is known on the effect of these short-term temperature rises on the marine microbial community composition. This project focuses on the impact of temperature increase on surface- and deep-water microbial communities during a heatwave and how or whether these communities of microorganisms recover after these events.  Water samples from the weekly time-series sampling in the Bedford Basin will be manipulated to mimic heatwaves as observed in recent years. The general design of these experiments will involve incubation of natural plankton communities at ambient and elevated temperatures and the temperature treatments will be based on temperature observations from the last 5-10 years. The student will work closely with a PhD student in the group.

The successful applicant will gain skills in: The student will gain skills in microbial community sampling, experimental manipulation, DNA extraction, amplicon sequencing, sequencing data analysis, and microscopy.

Dr. Cindy Staicer
Adjunct (retired) Professor, Biology Dept.

Project website

Conservation of Landirds at Risk in Forested Landscapes
Five species of landbirds at risk (Canada Warbler, Common Nighthawk, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Rusty Blackbird) breed in forested landscapes of Nova Scotia. This applied conservation research project will develop and test Benefical Management Practices (BMPs) for these species. BMPs are specific guidelines to ensure critical features of breeding habitat are maintained during forest harvesting and other land management activities.This project involves summer field work in remote areas of Nova Scotia to document breeding evidence and habitat use, and to quantify habitat features.

The successful student will gain skills in: Field work; bird survey techniques; identification of birds by sight and sound; forest measurement tools and techniques; identification of tree, shrub and other plant species; mapping and analysis using ArcGIS; data management and analysis; detection of species in sound recordings; planning; species conservation literacy; and teamwork.

Dr. Sophia Stone
Professor of Biology

Lab Website


Deciphering the genetic and molecular basis of plant response to multiple environmental stresses.  

As the global human population is expected to exceed 10 billion, there is a growing need to improve food security via boosting agricultural production. Compounding this problem is the negative impact of climate change on plant health and yield. This project will explore how plants utilize the ubiquitination proteasome system to regulate responses to and survive exposure to concurrent biotic (e.g. bacterial pathogen) and abiotic (e.g. drought and nutrient deficient soil) stresses.

The successful student will gain skills in:  Plant tissue culture; polymerase chain reaction (PCR); protein purification (e.g. immunoprecipitation); western blot analysis; protein-protein interaction assays; performing pathogen infection assays to characterize susceptibility of mutant and transgenic plants; phenotypic analysis to compared growth and development of mutant and transgenic plants to wildtype under various abiotic stress conditions.


Dr Daniel RuzzanteRuzzante Lab Website


Professor of Biology

Population genomics of marine, freshwater and diadromous fish

“Nothing in evolution makes sense except in light of population genetics” (Lynch 2007 PNAS). Our lab applies the concepts and principles of population genetics to examine questions of population structure geneflow and adaption in aquatic organisms, primarily fish.  A number of projects on population genomics and conservation genetics of marine and freshwater fish are currently underway in my lab. This summer we will be hiring up to 2 students to assist in a number of tasks that, depending on the  project, will include: (a) assisting in molecular lab in the generation of genomic data for the estimation of population abundance or census size in fish (marine and freshwater species) and (b) assisting in the “wet” lab for the estimation of age from otoliths, (c) assisting in the wet Aquatron lab with fish breeding experiments for the identification of genomic differences between seasonal spawning components in Atlantic herring and (d) fieldwork collecting freshwater fish. The estimation of population abundance using genomics is rooted in the Mark-Recapture framework of ecology and is based on the identification of close kin using parentage analysis.

The successful candidate(s) will gain skills in: several areas depending on the project. Skills acquired will include DNA extraction, amplification, sequencing protocols), mounting of fish ototliths for age assessment. Fish breeding experiments and fieldwork assisting in the sampling and data processing of freshwater fish.