Debbie Bouchard calls her position as Manager of the University of Maine’s Maine Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory [MAAHL] her second tour of duty at the university.

She put in her first as a student, majoring in microbiology, as well as a professional from 1977 to 1997. (Her given name is Deborah, but no one in the lab calls her anything but Debbie, which underscores the sense of openness and friendliness that pervades the atmosphere.)

The Microbiology Department, back in the 1970s and 1980s, when she worked there as a student on the work-study program, specialized in fish health work and research. She had applied for a job to help pay her way through college, and the first one that opened up happened to be at the lab. She said, “By default I got pulled into doing aquatic animal health work, and I just learned to love that science.” Asked how she came to choose science in the first place, she said, “Even as a little kid, I liked knowing why everything happened.”

This well-rounded microbiologist has done everything from human clinical work in a hospital laboratory to animal diagnostic work and doing that on aquatic animals. As she explained, “Whether you’re doing microbiology on fish or humans, the skill is still the same.” Between her two “tours of duty” at the university, she spent eight years operating her own microbiology company, Micro Technologies, Inc., which focused on performing aquatic animal health inspection and certification procedures for aquaculture companies.

It is unusual for a microbiologist to have both private and public experience, and this makes her better prepared to take a leading role in both circumstances. In addition to her B. S. in Microbiology, she is a graduate faculty advisor, a certified Fish Health Inspector in the U.S. and Canada; in addition, she sits on the National Aquaculture Animal Health Plan (NAAHP) for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the USDA/APHIS Animal Plant Health Inspection Services.

The animal health lab does applied research on aquatic animals, shellfish, and crustaceans, both cultured species and natural fisheries, though most of Bouchard’s experience has been in working with salmon and trout. The lab focuses on working with the causative agent: virus, bacteria, or parasites of fisheries diseases.

At present it has three major projects: 1. An intermolt study of regional lobster health, which graduate student David Basti is working on. 2. Lobster stressors: seeing what stresses lobster to death when trapped to see if it can lead to correct management practices. 3. Alternative baits to herring, such as catfish, suckerfish, etc. These fish would come from the western U.S. So the lab is looking at disease pathogen introduction from those fish, or put more simply: the risk of introducing new diseases to Maine waters.

“One of the things that sets us apart is that … everything we do is directly applicable to the fishing industry,” she said.

“It can be a relatively complex project: we can do big, federal funded projects, we can do state funded projects, or individual funded projects.”

With all the lab’s successes, not everything always goes smoothly in laboratories that work with live animals. The day before the interview for this story, there had been an emergency with a project the lab is finishing.

“We had this big, beautiful trial going on, looking at different genetic families of salmon that the USDA is developing,” Bouchard said, adding, “They’re in an aquarium downstairs. We go in. We gown-up.” (She explained that the trial includes work with infectious agents.) “And the control tank, the water supply got turned off, so all the control fish died.” She explained, “That’s an act of God that happens in an aquarium, so to salvage the experiment we sampled fish till 7:30 p.m. last night. Today, we’re breaking down the rest of it.”

Despite the problem of losing the control salmon, Bouchard calls managing the lab stressless compared to owning her own company. That microbiology firm did national and international regulatory work and grew from two people working out of a single room to a staff of eight and a full-equipped lab. At the university she enjoys working with lots of young, bright minds.

She also dances regularly: everything from line dancing and ballroom to hip-hop, she said. But beyond that, this small, slight woman used to do competitive weightlifting at 103 pounds and with less than 14 percent body fat. Although her weight and percentage of body fat may have risen a bit since her twenties, she still dances and keeps up her strength training.

Anne Lichtenwalner, Ph.D., veterinarian, Assistant Professor, and Director of the university’s Maine Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the MAAHL, spoke of Bouchard with great respect for her abilities as a microbiologist, saying, “She is a very capable person who can handle all aspects of grant preparation and budgeting (noting that they are vital skills in an academic institution), run a laboratory, and develop new assays [laboratory tests] for disease detection in many different species of animals.” Lichtenwalner went on saying of Bouchard, “She is great to work with, and is a wonderful colleague.”

Lichtenwalner ended this encomium by saying, “We are delighted to have her here at the University of Maine, where she received her undergraduate education.”