First-Generation College Student Makes Splash in Fish Health Research Improvements

Tuesday, June 29 2010

Written by Sue McMurray

MOSCOW, Idaho – For some, a college education is overrated, especially in hard economic times when a diploma from a four-year institution no longer guarantees a job.

While growing up, David Burbank’s family was of this opinion and did not encourage him to attend college just to have “the experience.” But Burbank had a different vision.

Burbank’s passions for fishing, the outdoors and science led him to the conclusion he needed a degree to do what he loves – apply principles of microbiology to improve fish health.

Burbank is the first member of his family to attend college. After a year in a transfer program at Boise State University, Burbank says he came to the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources because of its strong fisheries program, smaller classes and community “feel.”

Burbank, a University of Idaho graduate student studying fish health, currently is conducting hands-on research to improve the aquaculture industry’s understanding of probiotics. Probiotics are any bacteria or microbes that can be beneficial to the host, including disease treatment, as opposed to antibiotics, which fight against bacteria. Burbank recently received a McNair Graduate Assistantship to partially fund his research project to discover an effective probiotic treatment for Cold Water Disease (CWD).

CWD is the No. 1 disease facing the commercial sector of the Idaho trout industry. The disease is a worldwide problem for rainbow trout reared for commercial aquaculture and in resource enhancement fish hatcheries. In recent years, economic losses from this disease in the trout industry are estimated at approximately $9 million in Idaho alone – but are much higher worldwide.

“A new trend in aquaculture is learning which priobiotics effectively treat specific diseases,” said Burbank. “Using probiotics may have the potential to decrease reliance on antibiotics, which in the long run will save money that can be used to improve production facilities.”

Burbank worked with his mentor, Ken Cain, associate professor of fishery resources, to culture 318 strains of bacteria, which were screened to see if they had potential as probiotics.

“Of the 318, we discovered that 16 strains of bacteria did not cause direct mortality in the fish and could survive in the gastrointestinal tract and inhibit CWD in vitro,” said Burbank. “Now we are examining the 16 strains one by one to discover which will be an effective probiotic against CWD.”

“Dave’s work is extremely important to the Idaho trout industry, as well as to hatcheries raising trout and salmon to be stocked from sport fishing,” said Cain. “Recent lab and field trials have identified two probiotics that greatly reduce the effects of CWD, and the university hopes to partner with interested companies to eventually develop a commercial product.”

In addition to the research Burbank conducts as a graduate student, he also participates in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Student Career Experience Program (SCEP), to gain additional experience in the aquaculture industry. SCEP offers curriculum related employment to students in certain academic disciplines.

During winter breaks and summers, he works at the Willard National Fish Hatchery in Cook, Wash., raising fish, monitoring water quality and visiting different facilities to experience feeding techniques and genetics practices.

After earning his master’s degree in fishery resources, Burbank will have a guaranteed fisheries biologist position at Willard.
# # #

About the University of Idaho

Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. The university is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For information, visit

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit