by Lucy Hough

When Brittney Dodge sees an eagle fly through the Upper Peninsula skies, she sees more than just a beautiful bird. She sees an opportunity.

Dodge, who graduated in December with a biology-physiology degree, spent much of her undergraduate career in biology professor Alec Lindsay’s research lab studying bird DNA. Park rangers from Voyageur’s National Park provided bird feathers found in eagle nests, and Dodge extracted the DNA to find out the species of bird. The results help the park’s conservationists know more about the ecosystem and work to keep eagles alive.

In the same lab, she also worked with blood samples taken from song birds in Pictured Rocks National Park. It was her job to identify the species of bird through DNA extraction to help conservationists there learn about the birds found along the national lakeshore park.

This research has opened doors for Dodge, who hails from Macomb, Mich. In the past year, she attended conferences in New York, California, Georgia and downstate Michigan. Not only did she learn more about graduate programs and meet professionals in her field at these conferences, but she also received awards. At the Michigan Bird Conservation Initiative (MiBCI) Conference in Tustin, Mich., she was chosen for the Best Poster Award for her presentation “DNA-Barcoding Identifies Unknown Bird Blood Samples to Species.”

“I think my favorite part about going to the conferences is that, although I’m a hard science, a lot of the research that I saw while I was at these conferences was a social science or a liberal studies, so it was really nice to see more of how other fields do their research,” Dodge said

Some of these conferences were McNair research conferences, which Dodge attended in connection with Northern’s McNair Scholars Program. McNair is a national program designed to prepare participants for doctoral studies through involvement in research. It works with students to complete undergraduate requirements and encourage application and entrance to graduate programs. Dodge said being a McNair scholar connected her not only with these research professional development opportunities, but also helped her consider other options for graduate school.

“Without McNair, I don’t think I would have been as decisive as I ended up being, or had the opportunities that it allowed me to have,” she said.

Dodge’s primary interest for doctoral studies is human genetics. Though the work she does in Lindsay’s lab isn’t the field she hopes to get into, she recognizes how this work has given her worthwhile experience for graduate school applications.

“Learning those techniques is going to help me when I go into human genetics because I know how to do DNA extraction and I know how to do PCR [polymerase chain reaction] amplification,” she said. “I know the basic steps so that when I go to graduate school I have the foundation that I can build on.”

Dodge continues to work in Lindsay’s lab while applying to graduate schools.  “When schools see that you’re a McNair scholar, it shows that you’ve had that preparation, you’ve done the research and you know what you’re getting yourself into,” Dodge said.