Nashoba Tech Biotechnology Instructor John Milhaven watches as Nicholas Dumoulin, a freshman from Townsend, checks chemical levels in the aquarium and Charlene Flanders, a junior from Ayer, looks on. COURTESY NASHOBA TECH
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

WESTFORD – Students in the Biotechnology program at Nashoba Valley Technical High School are getting their feet wet this year … well, their hands, more accurately.

To keep up with the state’s frameworks for biotech programs, instructor John Milhaven had to include a facet that “involves the proper and ethical care of laboratory animals.”

Biotechnology students at Nashoba Tech’s are studying the genetics of zebrafish.COURTESY NASHOBA TECH

But what animal?

“Of course, when people think of laboratory animals, they think about mice or rats,” Milhaven said, “and I thought mice or rats would be expensive and smelly.”

His second thought? Fruit flies. But Nashoba Tech is a school that — under normal, non-pandemic circumstances — features an award-winning restaurant run by staff and students in the Culinary Arts program that is open to the public.

So the idea of fruit flies fizzled.

“I was afraid if the fruit flies got out and made their way into the cafeteria or into Culinary Arts, I could be in trouble,” he said. “Then, I thought of zebrafish.”

Makes sense if you think about it. Fish do gather in schools, right?

But how, one might wonder, can studying zebrafish possibly be of use in the teaching of biotechnology?

“Zebrafish are very highly used in genetics and embryological studies,” Milhaven said. “I figured it would be interesting and engaging for students to have an animal they can look at and take care of. The students can put on their resumes that they’ve worked with zebrafish and are familiar with their care, and what it takes to make them healthy and happy.”

And besides, as Milhaven noted, zebrafish are cordates — they have a spinal cord — “so their genetics are much closer to ours than fruit flies’.”

Milhaven set up an small aquarium in the Biotechnology classroom, bought six zebrafish from The Fish Nook in Acton, and got the kids involved in feeding and caring for them, including checking the various chemical levels of the water.

“The goal is to get a colony going so they’re self-sustaining,” Milhaven said, adding that’s he’s learning as the kids are.

“I knew a tiny bit about zebrafish, but I’m learning, too.”