This Science Class Was Different

Today’s post comes to us from Courtney Walsh. Courtney is from Newburyport MA. She played field hockey in high school and wishes NECCO had a team. She did Best Buddies where she realized she enjoys helping others. She went to Haiti on a mission trip and decided one day she would love to work with people, especially kids, who are less fortunate. Her major is Psychology and someday she hopes to work with kids who are not as fortunate and set them on a good path to success (in whatever makes them happiest).

I hate science, I have never been good at it and I always go into it thinking that maybe this year will be different and it never is. I put so much time and effort into something that I know I will never succeed in, but this semester was different. I went into this biology class thinking the same thing I always think: maybe this year will be different. I went from every class to every lab more confused. This was the first time in my life that I was content with being confused. Not only did I enjoy learning about gulls but learning more about myself; I realized that it is okay to be confused and not understand. Trial and error was a main part of this class and I was forced to adapt to that. Kind of like how gulls have to adapt to things. I never would have thought that sitting in a lab learning about gulls could help me learn about myself. My first thought when hearing we would be learning about gulls was, boring. Boring was the last thing it was; I not only learned about gulls but learned how to ask better questions. I learned that when I am questioning something, I should do research and ask more questions. But the most important lesson I learned in lab was that it is okay to be wrong. I struggled a lot but this class made me grow as a person and want to learn more about the gulls of Appledore. One part of this class was to draw a dichotomous key, I remember sitting for hours trying to figure out how I would do it and how I would get a satisfactory on it. I never got a satisfactory on it, I still need more work on it. Initially when I received the grade I was upset but the fact is it wasn’t satisfactory. I really thought I understood how to read and tell the difference between blood cells. I knew the general ideas but clearly not enough and it something that I want to learn more about and understand better. I don’t know if I ever will fully understand it I know I want to know more.

Bio and Data and Gulls, Oh My!

Today’s post is by Amelia Smith. Amelia is from Haverhill, MA. Her hobbies include photography, music, and health and fitness. Her ultimate career goal is to become a licensed social worker helping children and adolescents. She plans to transfer to a four year school in fall 2021 after earning her Associates at NECC.

When I enrolled in Introductory Biology I at NECC, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It had been a few years since I had taken high school biology and I was looking forward to taking college level biology.  However, nothing was mentioned ahead of time about the non-traditional class format. I typically prefer hands-on learning experiences, but the CURE model (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience) intimidated me when I heard about it during the first couple of classes.

Gull Dissection 1Math and science are not necessarily my academic strengths, so the research tasks and assignments proved to be challenging for me. It was evident that Professor Courchesne loved her work with the gulls, but I wondered if I could understand and benefit from what seemed like a daunting topic. The lab experience and assignments gave me a taste of the true nature of scientific research, but sometimes I missed the clear-cut instructions and expectations that come with traditional textbook learning.

Gull Dissection 2As Professor Courchesne mentioned, our weekly lab time was devoted to the Gulls of Appledore research and the assignments outside of class were also directly related to the research. During the semester we studied gull behavior, dissected gull carcasses, examined blood smear slides, identified types of blood cells, discussed population sampling and analyzed data using spreadsheets. The skill I enjoyed learning the most was how to look at spreadsheet data. Even though we only had time for a brief introduction, the assignments that involved data analysis piqued my interest.

Gull Dissection 3Because of the digital age we live in, most fields rely on data to gain insight and to inform decisions. I intend to pursue a degree in social work, and I have heard that the way in which data is used and collected has a large impact on the social work profession. In her article “Big Data’s Impact on Social Services”, Lindsey Getz alludes to the fact that reliable research data can lead to improved understanding of the reasons for social problems.

Blood SmearGetz spoke with a business consultant firm that believes that properly collecting and utilizing data can allow social workers to get ahead of negative trends. The article gives the example of collecting data that would identify the reasons for youth disengagement in education and how the data can then be used to create more targeted preventative measures.


While data analysis may not specifically appear on the list of skills needed to be a social worker, critical thinking usually does. My critical thinking skills were certainly tested this semester, and any improvements I made were largely due to Professor Courchesne’s dedication to our biology class and the CURE model. Looking back, I am grateful for the opportunity to dabble in scientific research methods and I can see that I gained some valuable skills.


Works Cited

“Big Data’s Impact on Social Services” Great Valley Publishing Company, Inc. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Blood smear and cell breakthrough

downloadToday’s post is by Karla Canas-Deras. Karla is majoring in Psychology and wants to become a clinical social worker. If she’s not at work or the gym then she is binge-watching shows on Netflix. Mostly the foody/cultural ones. Street Food is a good one!




Reading blood smears and understanding how they were different from one another was a lot harder than I had thought, this includes reading blood cells as well. The labs were always intimidating due to the lack of prior knowledge in biology. The first challenge I had was getting used to the microscope.

MicroscopeBlog post
Once I knew where things moved and how they moved I was ready to grab a slider and place it in the slide holder. Once the slider was there, I moved the slide around to find the parts within the blood smear.
Slide Labels- Blog post
There was a lot of adjusting that needed to be done to focus on the cells in one section. With a lot of practice and patience, it became easier to focus and count the types of blood cells in the smears. Ex. Below are two pictures I took from my slide. (It had taken 3 microscopes and some help to be able to view this. I also wear glasses so there was a lot of adjusting myself to be able to see the cells.)
Pic 1cells - Blog Post
In this first picture, I see one heterophil and two lymphocytes. There are red blood cells everywhere in this picture. The heterophil is a larger circle instead of an oval. It’s size varies but it contains granules within the nucleus. Lymphocytes are much smaller and are an imperfect circle. Their colors are much lighter than the other cells.
Pic 2Cells - Blog post
In this picture, there are two heterophils and what looks like three lymphocytes.
The number of cells in the smear vary and end up decreasing when moving towards the feathered edge.
Being able to see the cells up close and clearer gave me such a relief. Everything online just made it seem more complex and difficult to learn. Being hands-on made the experience much better.

Gull guts galore

Today’s post is by Remy Adamsky. Remy is a Liberal Arts major with an eye toward a biology degree after eventual transfer. After that? They are interested in wildlife science and veterinary medicine, and I see no ceiling to what they could achieve in any of those fields!
I knew Biology 111 was going to be my favorite class of the semester when Professor Courchesne enthusiastically informed us all that she would be bringing in a black garbage bag of dead baby birds for us to cut open. I don’t believe that most people’s idea of a good time is cutting open dead chicks that are all in various states of decay, but I don’t believe that most people are as excited about the study of biology as Professor Courchesne. Her announcement was met with mixed feelings – I saw the eyes of the other biology lovers light up with excitement and heard the more squeamish among us sigh uncomfortably. I couldn’t wait and honestly, what better an experience to break the ice between the new classmates than wiping out a scalpel and checking out some gull guts? 
Even the most excited among us were hesitant when dissection day came around, all tentatively getting in line to pick out lucky gull carcass out of the bag. Nervous laughter and the smell of rotting gull innards filled the room as we all began the process of opening up our birds. My partner was less eager to dive into the tiny dead gull that laid before us so I joked around with her and tried to make her feel more comfortable, as this clearly wasn’t her idea of a great biology class. Despite her obvious discomfort with the situation, I managed to get a few laughs from her and we worked incredibly well together. When she wasn’t comfortable looking at the tiny bird guts I was poking around in, I helped her out by explaining what I was seeing so that she could still gain the knowledge of the experience. The assumption that this experience would bring us together was right and my dissection partner and I quickly became good friends. 
Starting off the semester by jumping straight into a full dissection of the main birds we would be studying was honestly an amazing idea on Professor Corchesne’s end. I’m sure that the main purpose of this lab was to get us familiar with the birds we would be studying this semester, but it also proved to be an incredible, if not unconventional, ice breaker. From that day, I knew that Biology 111 would be my favorite class of my first semester at Northern Essex and I am truly grateful for the people I met and the experiences I gained from this class. 


Today’s post, by Liberal Arts major Ally Farah, almost made me cry when I read it. Even if a kindled passion for spreadsheets doesn’t choke you up, I suspect you will nonetheless enjoy Ally’s perspective on the semester’s work.

I used to say I was not a “science person”. I used to find it a bit dreary and repetitive. I felt like if you wanted to be a good scientist, you had to be good at memorizing things even if you don’t really understand the concept.

And then I took this class.

Currently, I am a liberal arts student and I am having a hard time picking a career path. I took this class initially as a prerequisite, and did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

We started this semester with an awesome concept called CURE which stands for Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience. This gave us students a platform to learn some basic biology concepts in our day to day classes, and we also participated in a weekly lab on a research project for the Gulls of Appledore. This research project allowed us students to collaborate as a class to collect, analyze, and record data on these gulls. This resulted in lots of experience for our class.

One thing I found super interesting, among many others, was the use of spreadsheets in science to record our data. We got to come together as a class to consider many things, including the use of a spreadsheet for our data. But, I never thought about the different ways data could be placed on a spreadsheet for easier access. There is a tab that can be added to a spreadsheet that is used as a data dictionary. This is where spreadsheet contributors can add words and definitions for some who may have trouble understanding some science terms, or the context of the words. Another interesting part of spreadsheets was the organization of the columns. Each column should be labeled, and the labels should include an underscore for where spaces should be. For example, we labeled band number as band_number in the spreadsheet. Another important spreadsheet tip is to never leave cells empty. All cells should be filled and they should be filled as N/A (or whatever the author chooses). This helps others to distinguish between information that was intentionally left blank due because of lack of data, or information that was accidentally forgotten about. Configuring data is super important to organize information that could possibly be used for scientific studies, and it is important that outside readers can understand your spreadsheets for this reason.

This class taught me much about spreadsheets and blood smears, but more importantly I learned that anyone can be a scientist if the information interests you enough that you want to keep working at it to find any possible outcomes. Science is about persevering really, and I feel like this class taught me how to do that competently. To sum up this class time we have shared together, I would say that the number one thing I learned is to never give up on the possibility of gaining new knowledge, and always stay interested in learning how the world works. I now consider myself a scientist, even if that is not my profession. Thank you, Professor!


Broman, Karl W., and Kara H. Woo. “Data Organization in Spreadsheets.” Taylor & Francis,

Scourchesne, /. “The Gulls Of Appledore.” The Gulls Of Appledore, 6 Oct. 2019,

When Our Momma Sang us to Sleep, but now We’re Stressed Out

Today’s post comes to us from Erik Mueller. Erik is currently finishing up an Associate’s Degree in Liberal Arts before continuing on in his academic and career goals. He has always had an interest in the sciences and in learning.

Coming into this class back in September 2019, I was expecting a more typical biology course and lab. Typical cellular examination under microscopes, identifying organelles and what their function is, and hearing everyone’s favorite takeaway “Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”. I would have made a bet that this would have been an easy class and that I would have been bored. My bank account would be lighter had I followed through on that bet. The lab, and the work we did on the Gulls of Appledore project, was both exhilarating and informative, and was something I would suggest to any prospective student who needs a biology elective from Northern Essex.

What really intrigued me more than anything else was the idea that a creature as seemingly unintelligent as a gull could experience stress, a phenomenon more closely associated with higher intelligence creatures to the average human being. Looking into things further, both on my own and through lab, I realized how wrong I was. But what is stress? According to Medline, stress is “a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes [you] feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.” When you look at it through such a simple and broad lens, it does make sense that a creature like a seagull could feel stress, but what does a seagull have to stress about?


This was the big question submitted to us at the beginning of the semester, and it was up to us to come up with a probable hypothesis and find the evidence to back it up. One of the most common possibilities of stress in a seagull was food availability. The less food you have access to, the hungrier you are, and the more you stress about where and when your next meal will be. Other stressors included proximity to humans, if you were not the first-born chick, and even feuding with other gulls of both your species and other species. Once we had our hypothesis, we would use blood evidence gathered by the interns working on the Appledore project to determine whether our hypothesis held merit. Said blood evidence came in the form of two types of white blood cells; heterophils and lymphocytes. The ratio of these two helps to determine the long-term stress level of the bird. The higher the ratio, the more likely the bird is stressed.

Even if you enter this class with a severe dislike or even a phobia of seagulls, you will still find the information you glean from here interesting and informative. While my thoughts on seagull intelligence has not changed from when I saw five of them go after a piece of paper left in a McDonald’s parking lot, I learned more about birds and stressors than I would have though going in.

Too big or not too big… that is the question

Today’s post was written by Mike Keogh. Since returning from a year in New Zealand, Mike has been working on fulfilling the pre-requisites for graduate school. He has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology but he is going back to school for Physical Therapy. When time allows, he enjoys hiking, paddle boarding,and traveling. 

The fall 2019 semester’s Introductory Biology I course was one of the most unusual and rewarding class structures I’ve experienced. Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience, or CURE, was an experiment to see if the gap between the foundational learning of the classroom and the practical experience of field work could be bridged. I would argue it has been, the benefits of which go beyond our transcripts.

The focus of CURE, and that of The Gulls of Appledore Research Group, is the Great Black-Backed Seagull. Each summer, Dr. Courchesne and a group of students, be they middle-schoolers or biology majors at a major university, travel to Appledore Island to study the large colony of Great Black-Backed (and to a lesser extent, Herring) Gulls that live there. The researchers spend weeks mapping the island, plotting the locations of nests, recording eggs hatching, and monitoring the health and development of those fledgings.

In the pursuit of learning about and from the gulls, the researchers gently separate the proud parents from their chicks for just long enough to take blood samples, affix an identification band to the chick’s leg, and record any other pertinent data about the chick or the nest. Analysis of the blood samples offers a range of information about the gulls, such as identifying if the gull is suffering from a disease and enabling researchers to perform a white blood cell count. In our case, the white blood cells of interest were heterophils and lymphocytes. The ratio of these two white blood cells allows researchers to identify the level of stress experienced by the gull.

Yes, the gulls are stressed. While demanding managers and delayed trains don’t top their list of stressors, the gulls face many of the same dilemmas and issues as humans. Who to choose as a mate, where to settle down, how to care and provide for their young, and the ever-increasing consequences of climate change.

Some stressors can be measured fairly directly, but no stressor is without obstacles and confounding variables. These variables can mean tricky decisions, often without all the information. For example, “How does the distance from the high tide line to a gull’s nest effect that gull’s stress level?” may seem simple. The researchers would have to choose an area to focus on, go out at high tide to mark the water line, and then measure the distance from that line to each nest in their area of focus. But what if a nest is in thick brush? Just estimate? Will that hold up to peer-review? What if a nest is on a large rock? Does the researcher climb the rock and measure directly to the nest? Do they measure to the base of the rock and then up the height of the rock to the nest? Could they mark the locations of the nests in that area on a map and then use the distance scale to measure the distance from the high-tide line to each nest as if they were all on the same level? These kinds of questions may seem like someone playing devil’s advocate, but, in the field, they can quickly become major obstacles that require the researchers to make judgement calls that will impact their entire study.

This semester, our class was provided with blood smear slides collected from gulls in 2017. As a class, we decided that we would count heterophils and lymphocytes, two types of white blood cells, the ratio of which can indicate the stress level in the gulls. We also decided that it would require the examination of 6 fields (locations on the slide to examine with a light microscope) on each slide to get an accurate idea of how many heterophils and lymphocytes a given sample contained.

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We got slides, got microscopes, and got counting. All of our fields were photographed using our phones and sent to Dr. Courchesne for confirmation. We finished with confirmed heterophil and lymphocyte counts for 42 gulls from 2017.

Using this data, I examined the relationship between heterophils and lymphocytes by calculating the difference between them and comparing that difference to the gull’s mass. My goal in doing so was to identify if there was any relationship between the mass of a gull and the stress level it experienced. If the data were to show a connection, such as gulls beyond a certain mass experiencing abnormally high levels of stress, more research could be conducted to examine what specific aspects of being a large gull caused the increase in stress.

However, my analysis revealed no special relationship concerning the difference between the heterophils and lymphocytes and the mass of the gulls. Only a single gull’s data was thrown out as an outlier being beyond three standard deviations from the overall average. Without that single outlier, the data points were spread relatively evenly across the spectrum of gull masses. This indicates that the masses of the gulls are not a major contributing factor to their overall stress level.

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I was surprised that mass does not appear to be a major factor in the stress levels of the gulls. I would have thought being larger would mean needing more food, the gathering of which takes a lot of energy, thereby compounding the problem. I would be interested to find out if there are any physical features that do play a role in the stress levels of the gulls. Hopefully, I will be able to take advantage of The Gulls of Appledore Research Group’s internship opportunity to go to Appledore and conduct my own research to find out.