Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Giant sea slug helps StFX researchers learn more about the human nervous system

November 22nd, 2016
Tritonia Diomedea
StFX researchers are studying navigation behavior in Tritonia diomedea, a giant sea slug that could help scientists better understand the human nervous system.

Did you know that giant sea slugs could be one key to help researchers learn more about the human nervous system? 

Second-year science student Patrick O’Brien spent much of this summer off British Columbia’s pacific coast, studying Tritonia diomedea, a giant sea slug with a simpler nervous system that makes it an ideal “science convenience” for learning about other types of animals. 

“Complex neuro systems are just a series of simple neuro systems,” explains Patrick. “So when we study a simple system, we’re able to see what it does. Then, we extrapolate that to understand what might happen in more complex systems, like the ones vertebrate animals have - including humans.” 

This particular project focusses on navigation behavior, looking at where and how an animal chooses to go in its habitat. A lot of marine animals, including Tritonia diomedea, use flowing water to direct how they move. But while researchers know the animals do this, they don’t fully understand how. This research hopes to answer that question by studying the sensory organs and nervous system of Tritonia, which in turn may provide greater insight on similar behaviors in other types of animals.

Working on this project was an eye-opener for Patrick, but one that’s enriched his time as a StFX student. 

“It was a steep learning curve,” he says. “But I think it really benefited me by showing what research actually is, and by showing that you need to jump in to succeed. It’s also helped me think more about what’s being taught in the classroom. Instead of just trying to memorize everything, you actually try and understand everything.”

He’s also had the benefit of working with StFX Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Russell Wyeth, who champions the important role that students play in research at StFX. 

“We depend entirely on students in our labs. We cannot do this alone,” says Dr. Wyeth. “And we benefit greatly from the young minds that come in with new ideas, take us in slightly new directions, and think of things we would never have thought of.”

Dr. Wyeth also explains that while good grades are important, the most important quality in an aspiring researcher is their deep sense of curiosity. 

“There has to be a drive to discover knowledge and be curious about the world, and be willing to do what it takes to discover that knowledge,” he says. “The reality is that understanding how the world works is not something that always fits in a 9-5 job or between a coffee break and the end of the day. Discovery happens when it happens.”

“Those are the kinds of students we look for at StFX.”

Given how working on this project has shaped Patrick’s experience as a student, it’s no surprise that he agrees with Dr. Wyeth, nor that he has some advice for aspiring student researchers. 

“If you’re interested in research, don’t be afraid to go up to your professor and ask. Just do it.”

This research is, in part, made possible by the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

Learn more about student research opportunities at StFX.

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