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REU Takes Students into Field, Labs

Program provides hands-on research experience
12/19/2014

Emily Hall - image by Robert Podolsky

Five ESF undergraduates had the opportunity to delve into university research during the summer of 2014 by working in laboratories alongside renowned faculty members and their research colleagues across the nation.

The students participated in the highly competitive Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to give undergraduates real world and hands-on experience in scientific research. The program supports active research participation by students in any of the areas of research funded by the NSF.

"NSF REU programs provide a wonderful opportunity for undergrads to experience the world of university research by working in the laboratories of distinguished faculty members and their research groups," said Dr. Arthur Stipanovic of ESF's Department of Chemistry.

"REU interns get hands-on research experience plus they learn about working together in a 'team' environment toward common goals. Typically, REU programs conclude with the students completing a written report on their work that could ultimately be published and they have an opportunity to present their research at a poster symposium," Stipanovic said. REU experiences also help students decide if graduate school is right for them."

Charlene Grabowski: The right career path

Charlene Grabowski, a chemistry major with a polymer concentration, was accepted into the Polymers and High Performance Materials REU at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Grabowski, a junior, participated in the school's Sustainable Chemistry, Engineering, and Materials REU Site: Polymer Innovation for a Sustainable Future program at the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials. Her work was titled "Exploring the Influence of Nanoparticle Composition on the Wetting State of Superhydrophobic Thiol-ene Surfaces.

"We surveyed the impact that chemical composition has on superhydrophobicity," she said. Superhydrophobicity describes the property of a surface that is extremely difficult to wet. "A water droplet will make contact with the surface at an angle of greater than 150 degrees, and requires less than a 10 degree tilt to roll off," she explained.

"I greatly enjoy this topic because it is heavily inspired by nature, such as the lotus leaf's self-cleaning phenomenon, and I enjoy the study of biomimetics ('the study of models, systems and elements of nature to solve complex human problems')" she said.

Grabowski also saw the REU program as a way to plan for the future. "Personally, I am not going to graduate school immediately, but this experience solidified my desire to study polymer chemistry when I do attend. The experience definitely made me realize that research is the right career path for me."

Connon Thomas: Seaweed study enriches education

Conservation biology major Connon Thomas, an ESF senior, dove into the topic of non-native species while working as an intern in the College of Charleston REU program in Charleston, S.C.

"I studied the growth of different populations of a non-native marine seaweed namedGracilaria vermiculophylla under different treatments of salinity," he said. The species, which originates from Japan, has rapidly spread to the Mediterranean and Atlantic and Pacific U.S. coasts over the last few decades.

"My project aimed to investigate if populations on the Atlantic U.S. coast have adapted to local salinities in order to see how the environment is affecting spread and how the seaweed copes with it," he said.

Thomas found the experience instrumental to his ESF education. "As a conservation biologist, getting the opportunity to work on a project that involves the spread of a non-native species has been invaluable in my understanding of ecosystem dynamics," he said. "I learned that although it could be called an invasive species, the seaweed also performs some positive ecosystem services on the empty mudflats that it colonizes, providing substrate and food for a range of invertebrate species."

The internship broadened Thomas' studies. "At ESF, a lot of focus is put on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, but during my REU I was exposed to a broad spectrum of marine research focused on environmental change and ecology, particularly the topics that my fellow interns were investigating," he said. "Working in a lab gave me insight into the world of graduate school and what it will be like when I start on my master's degree, and working independently on a project and solving the many problems that come up during development has made me a much more well-rounded scientist."

Thomas encourages anyone considering an REU to take the plunge, "There are many to choose from, each with a unique focus," he said.

Cassandra Beaulieu: Water sampling project defines Ph.D. goals

Senior Cassandra Beaulieu, an environmental chemistry major, did her REU through

the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography.

She developed a scientific method to calculate the isotopic composition of nitrogen in the ammonium molecule. "To do this I needed a method which captured 100 percent of the ammonium in a water sample in the Narragansett Bay watershed."

After developing the calculation method, she used it to analyze water coming from wastewater treatment facilities to see if that water discharge was affecting the water in Narragansett Bay watershed. She did it by comparing the isotopic compositions of the different waters.

"In coastal marine environments, excess nitrogen from fertilizers and our waste can cause algal blooms which deplete oxygen from the water and can kill fish or other organisms," said Beaulieu.

An interest in nutrient cycling combined with a general interest in chemical oceanography lead Beaulieu to the topic and the experience helped her decided what will come after ESF.

"I would like to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical oceanography, focusing on nutrient cycling of carbon and nitrogen," she said.

Said Beaulieu, the REU provided a "a great professional experience on top of being a research experience."

Emily Hall: Can sea urchins adapt to climate change?

Senior Emily Hall spent her summer at the Fort Johnson REU program at the College of Charleston.

Hall studied how marine organisms might respond to a more acidic ocean. Ocean acidification, considered "the other CO2 problem" in addition to climate change, is caused when the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere, Hall said. That absorbed carbon dioxide reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid, making the ocean more acidic.

"In acidified oceans, calcium carbonate and other minerals become more soluble so that structures like shells and other skeletons will begin to dissolve and are harder to build," she said. "This loss of skeleton can result in weaker organisms that have a decreased chance of survival. There will be detrimental impacts to the environment, as marine organisms decline, as they play diverse and important roles in marine ecosystems."

In particular, Hall studied the effects of ocean acidification on the development of sea urchin larvae that build an internal skeleton. "Sea urchins were used as a model study organism because they act as a keystone species," she said, "regulating the growth of many different types of algae."

Hall examined whether larvae show different levels of resistance to ocean acidification based on their genetic makeup. To create genetic diversity, she cross-bred sets of males and females and compared their larvae reared under two carbon dioxide conditions; the current one and those predicted 50 to 100 years in the future. By comparing the skeletal growth of larvae, Hall was able to determine if there is genetic variation for resistance to the harmful effects of ocean acidification.

With information from her project, Hall and other scientists can begin to understand whether marine organisms such as sea urchins will adapt to the multiple effects of climate change, including ocean acidification.

"If such organisms lack the genetic potential to adapt quickly enough to these changing conditions, marine populations will decline, leading to disruptions in the health of marine ecosystems," she said.

Eric Stevens: Biobutanol from biomass can help solve energy challenge

Senior Eric Stevens, a chemistry major, did his REU at Auburn University, working on the chemical conversion of biomass into fuel as part of the Auburn Biosystems Engineering program.

His project, "Biochemical Conversion of Biomass into Butanol Using Clostridium Acetobutylicum," involved the conversion of chemically pretreated switchgrass into butanol using C. acetobutylicum.

"I chose that project specifically because of its implications toward solving modern energy issues," Stevens said. "Our dependence upon fossil fuels is concerning, and replacement fuels - such as butanol, the fuel I was making - should be developed."

The project was important, he explained, "because butanol is a more desirable fuel than ethanol as a replacement transportation fuel. Discovering low-cost and renewable methods of creating butanol is imperative toward its development."

Although Stevens knew what he wanted to focus on in graduate school, he said his experience at Auburn solidified that notion.