Stopping the spread of "whirling disease" is the mission of UVM student Allison Murphy, a senior majoring in environmental engineering and Spanish, with a minor in European Studies. Working together with Professors Lori Stevens and Donna Rizzo, Murphy's research hopes to improve the health of trout and salmon. Murphy is one of seven students who was awarded a Barrett Scholarship for summer research in 2009.
"It's easier to prevent disease by stopping the spread of infected worms, than to treat fish once they're infected," Murphy says.
Whirling disease spreads through a parasite that attaches to boats and gear, setting up new residence in streams, rivers and lakes. This parasite damages the neurological function in trout and salmon causing the fish to swim in corkscrew patterns. Infected fish are unable to eat or reproduce and become vulnerable to attack by predators. Most die from starvation. The disease, introduced from Eurasia in the 1950s, has been found in over 50 percent of U.S. waterways.
The worm Tubifex tubifex is an intermediate host of this parasite and lives in communities with three to four other types of worms in stream sediments. Murphy collects worms from sites that vary in fish disease and analyzes their DNA to test the hypothesis that worm communities are correlated with fish disease. An artificial neural network program is used to distinguish the DNA profile of different types of worms. The sites are then assessed with a numerical health score. Murphy's research will try to correlate the types and numbers of worms present with stream health indicators as determined by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources' Rapid Geomorphic Assessment (RGA) and Rapid Habitat Assessment Scores (RHA).
Murphy, originally from South Royalton, Vermont, is a member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and is the secretary for Chi Epsilon.