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Western teams up with community to address public health and environmental issues

Can a weevil species with a taste for Eurasian milfoil prevent the invasive weed from spreading further in the shoreline waters of Candlewood Lake? How can scientists use the analytical tools of the laboratory to provide early warning of a potential invasion of a tiny mussel species that threatens to disrupt the ecological balance and damage economic and recreational uses throughout the Housatonic River watershed? What can scientific study of the deer tick contribute to heightening public awareness of how Lyme disease is transmitted, and ultimately strengthen programs for disease prevention?

Faculty members at Western Connecticut State University, teaming up with a dedicated and enthusiastic cadre of student assistants, are taking the initiative in these and other research programs that promise  to advance scientific understanding and inform public discussion of some of the most pressing issues confronting communities, policy makers and businesses across the region.

Dr. Mitch Wagener, professor and chairperson of the WCSU biological and environmental sciences department, has played a central role in the ongoing research projects to determine the impact of weevil populations on seasonal milfoil growth at Candlewood, and to search for the presence of zebra mussel larvae at Candlewood as well as Lakes Zoar and Lillinonah. “We’re doing these projects as a service to the general public, as well as to train our students to conduct environmental research,” Wagener observed.

From the outset of the milfoil weevil field research in 2009 and the zebra mussel project initiated last year, Wagener has recognized that collaboration with community stakeholders in these important environmental studies is critical to their success. WCSU researchers have forged a close relationship with the Candlewood Lake Authority and CLA Executive Director Larry Marsicano to coordinate field work each spring and summer at weevil implantation sites at several locations along the Candlewood shore.  Field logistics to conduct sampling for zebra mussel larvae at sites on the three lakes as well as a fourth site on the Housatonic River have been made possible through cooperation with the CLA, the Friends of Lake Lillinonah and the Lake Zoar Authority.

Assistant Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Neeta Connally also knows the importance of establishing cooperative relationships with a network of community, academic and government partners to pursue research in the public interest. Connally, who views scientific research as an essential tool in the campaign to prevent Lyme disease transmission, is collaborating with the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH), the Yale School of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control to set up a research program on the ecology of the deer tick and Lyme disease prevention.  Her research is supported by a $38,000 grant from the DPH, and will provide important training opportunities for three student research assistants.

The role of Western students as participants in these and other research programs at the university reflects both the important contributions that they have made in field and lab work and the valuable education and skills they have gained for advanced studies and future careers. WCSU seniors Catrina Morgan and Kaitlin Bookless offer excellent examples as students whose research work has opened exciting opportunities for personal and professional development.

For a closer look at how Western research programs serve the public interest and provide educational opportunities for our students, please turn to the profiles published in this issue.

Above photo: In another form of community outreach, Dr. Mitch Wagener, aka Dr. Bug Catching Dude, works with WCSU's Building a Bridge to Improve Student Success program with Bethel and Danbury middle school students during Camp College in the summer.

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