Stacy Farina is a 2010 graduate of the University Honors Program with a degree in Biology. Following graduation, Stacy began her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, where, among her other projects, she is building a biomimetic fish robot to better understand her data without the use of living test subjects. Below, Stacy speaks about her time in the Honors Program, her post-graduation experiences, and her penchant for folk music.
Can you tell us a little about your background, Stacy?
I grew up in north-western New Jersey, which is a surprisingly rural part of the state. We had a large pond in our backyard, and I spent a lot of time looking at all the different animals in and around it. Growing up, I wanted to be a teacher or a journalist. However, when I started taking high school science courses, I realized that I could use my love of animals to become a biologist. Now I get to teach, write, and work with animals.
And what made you decide on UNH? What was your major?
I majored in biology with a concentration in marine and freshwater biology. I had read about the marine biology program at UNH, and I liked the fact that the school was connected with Shoals Marine Lab. Also, I visited the school and talked with Professor Win Watson about the marine biology program, and he was very enthusiastic about the opportunities at UNH!
Were you involved with any sports, organizations, or extracurricular activities while at UNH?
I was a member of the UNH Fencing Club all four years. It’s a great sport, and the club at UNH is exceptionally fun and competitive. My experiences with the club were definitely some of my best times at UNH, and I’m grateful to my coaches and my teammates for being so supportive of both my fencing and my academic work.
And how did the Honors Program contribute to your experience at UNH?
The honors program provided interesting ways to get the most out of my UNH experience. The honors coursework was engaging, and it introduced me to a lot of other great honors students. Honors-in-major credits gave me the opportunity to do extra projects for classes; for example, I helped design a lab for Animal Physiology, and I wrote a paper about the physics of deep-sea biology for Intro to Physics. Perhaps most importantly, doing honors thesis research allowed me to formulate and carry out my own research project, which was very helpful for my transition to graduate research.
Can you tell us about your notable experiences as an Honors student? Do you recall any notable professors?
I have a lot of great memories with two awesome UNH professors: Drs. Jessica Bolker and W. Hunt Howell. Dr. Bolker gave lectures in my Intro to Physics course about how the laws of physics influence the life of animals. She was very excited about and supportive of my interest in that field - biomechanics. She now teaches a course out at Shoals geared towards immersing incoming freshmen in marine biology and preparing them for their college experience - I wish it had been around when I was a freshman!
Dr. Howell was my academic and honors thesis advisor. I learned a ton about fisheries biology by working in his lab with his then-graduate student, Dr. Mick Walsh. When it came time to choose my own thesis project, he was incredibly supportive and allowed me to pursue a project that was different than the current research in his lab. Both professors, and many others at UNH, took the time to get to know me well and gave me the confidence, reassurance, and help that I needed to pursue my interests.
Did you write a thesis while at the Honors Program? What about?
I studied the nerve innervation of the lateral line system in deep-sea anglerfishes. These anglerfishes have special mechanoreceptors (to detect water vibrations) that sit on the surface of the head and body (they are embedded in bony canals in most fishes). These nerves had never been described in detail before in deep-sea anglerfishes, and we thought that their innervation might tell us something about the evolution of this sensory system.
What did you do after graduation?
I went to Cornell University to obtain my PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
And what have you been doing recently? Can you tell us about your research?
My PhD research is definitely the most interesting aspect of my post-UNH life so far. It turns out that we only know the very basics of the pumping mechanisms that fishes use to move water over their gills. The skeletal and muscular elements that perform this pumping are pretty variable, and the goal of my PhD research is to figure out how this anatomical variation impacts the mechanics and biology of different fishes, particularly in an evolutionary context. I started by studying monkfish, which are extremely slow-breathing, but I found that they were too weird to be able to relate my findings back to other fishes. I've since collected data on more "normal" fishes, and I’m using the results of that study to construct a simple biomimetic robot that will allow me to experiment with the anatomy of the gill chamber without needing to use living animals.
I also do a lot of teaching both on the Cornell campus and at the Shoals Marine Laboratory. I've been involved with the SML course "Anatomy and Function of Marine Vertebrates" for three (soon to be four) summers. It's a great experience for undergrads interested in marine biology, and I really enjoy being a part of the teaching staff.
I've also been singing in a folk band in Ithaca for 2 years. It’s a great way to relax and have fun, and I’ve been able to sing at a lot of cool venues and meet some great local musicians.
Is there any advice you would like to share with incoming, current, or graduating students?
It's never too early or too late to look for interesting opportunities - you never know what will come along at just the right time, academically or otherwise. Sign up for e-mail lists, scan bulletin boards, talk with your professors, and do everything you can to get information on internships, jobs, and experiences that might interest you. Cast your net widely when applying for summer and post-grad jobs, and don't be afraid to go for something a little out of your comfort zone - it's often worth it!