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Shared Lessons

Alumna and current undergraduate collaborate on salamander project

United by a love of salamanders and a passion for teaching, student Grace Leopold, ’24, and science teacher Julia Whalen, ’20, G’24, are teaming up to study the tiny amphibians and their predators. 

Grace, a biology and secondary education major, created clay salamanders she placed in the Great Hill woods on Bridgewater State University’s campus. She hopes predators will seek out the “claymanders” and leave their bite marks in the clay. Cameras will also record what happens. 

Julia, who teaches at Carver Middle High School, is leading the same project with her students.   

“It lets them see school is something more than reading from a book and doing worksheets,” said Julia, who studied the same fields as Grace as a BSU undergraduate and is now pursuing a master’s degree in physical science.  

Grace and Julia praised Dr. Caitlin Fisher-Reid, an associate professor of biological sciences, for encouraging them to participate in undergraduate research. Fisher-Reid’s lab studies eastern red-backed salamanders through the Salamander Population and Adaptation Research Collaboration Network (SPARCnet), which includes researchers from as far away as Indiana and Virginia who aim to understand how environmental changes affect salamanders. 

In addition to Grace’s project with claymanders, BSU and Carver students track and measure living salamanders to better understand a species whose presence indicates a healthy forest.

A salamander made of clay with a red stripe sits on a leaf.
A salamander made of clay

“I enjoy science I can look at and see with my eyes,” said Grace, who joined the lab after Julia graduated. “I love the people in the research lab. We’re always hanging out outside of the lab. And Caitlin is such a good mentor. I feel like I just hit the jackpot.” 

Julia can relate. She said a mix of lab experience and education classes helped her excel as a teacher. 

While she didn’t plan to continue salamander research after college, Julia realized it is a perfect topic for students enrolled in Carver’s environmental and agricultural sciences pathway.  

“They really enjoy getting outside and working with the salamanders,” said Julia, who received the 2022 Joann Blum Inspiration in Environmental Education Award from the Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers. 

The woods next to her school are an ideal classroom. That habitat features mostly pine trees, which differs from the mixed forest on BSU’s campus and mostly deciduous trees at other Massachusetts SPARCnet sites, Fisher-Reid said. 

“It’s awesome,” she said of Julia incorporating the research into her teaching. “I didn’t really think any of my students would do that. I’m happy when they get jobs. To have a student take an entire project and say, ‘I can do it with younger students,’ is a teacher’s dream.” 

Grace is excited to have data from Carver claymanders because it will help her draw better conclusions for her honors thesis about the salamander predators project. She even visited Julia’s classroom and worked with her students.  

“The most rewarding thing is being able to collaborate with Julia,” Grace said. “To learn from someone who has gone through exactly what I’m going through is super helpful.” 

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