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On the Beach or On the Ice, International Student Excels

On the Beach or On the Ice, International Student Excels

Posted: November 4, 2016

Viivi Vaattovaara spent a lot of time on the beach last summer, but she wasn’t playing volleyball. “We were looking for bacterial pathogens,” she said.

Vaattovaara is a biology major with a concentration in biotechnology. She received an Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in summer 2016, and used it to begin researching the presence of bacteria in the sand as well as in the water at Bennett Beach. One of her faculty mentors, Gary Pettibone, professor of biology, has been investigating the bacteria levels in the sand at local beaches. Another mentor, Amy McMillan, associate professor of biology, runs the conservation genetics lab at Buffalo State.

“The sand may contain more bacteria than the water does,” said Vaattovaara. “So we collected samples from the water, the sand, and the swash zone—that’s where the waves wash up and recede. We took samples before the season opened, another after a long dry spell, and another after a rainfall.”

Ongoing DNA Extraction and Analyses
The next step involved filtering the samples in the hope of trapping the bacteria in the filters, and then analyzing bacterial DNA to identify the species. “We had to come up with a protocol to extract DNA from the filters,” said Vaattovaara. “It’s been exciting to work with the technology, especially because the facilities in the new Science and Mathematics Complex are phenomenal. We have a next-generation DNA sequencing machine we’re going to use, and we hope we can identify all the bacteria.” The team is exploring several questions, including the comparative levels of bacteria in the sand and the water as well as the source of the bacteria.

On the Ice
During hockey season, Vaattovaara is on the ice when she’s not busy in the lab. She’s been playing hockey for years, beginning with a youth team in her native country, Finland. “We came to the States for hockey camps,” she said, “and some were held in Amherst, so I was familiar with the Buffalo area.” Last year, the women’s hockey team had the most wins in a season, and Vaattovaara is optimistic about this year’s team.

Building Self-Reliance through International Study
“I’m glad I came to the United States for college,” said Vaattovaara. “First, just the experience of being away from your home country is valuable. Now I think I can be comfortable anywhere because I’ve developed independence and maturity, and I know I can rely on myself.”

That confidence will serve Vaattovaara well as she explores her options after graduation, when she plans to go back to Finland. “I want to relax, get a job, and study for entrance exams to medical schools there,” she said. “In Finland, medical school is free. I might consider England, too.” She is considering pediatrics and neurology, but her primary objective is “to choose a field where I can excel and continue to learn new things.” 

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