For many jobs in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, hands-on experience in research is a valuable asset, if not a requirement. This presents a unique challenge to undergraduate students who often lack the time, networking resources, and track record to obtain even entry-level positions that would provide such experience. Since 1987 the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been supporting thousands of undergraduate researchers each year through its Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.
The REU program is a competitive research internship, usually held for 6 to 12 weeks during the summer or fall semester, which allows undergraduate students to participate in independent research under the guidance of an individual faculty mentor or a team of researchers. The overarching goal of the program is to give students a taste of what active scientific research is like in their field of interest, expanding upon what they learn through classroom texts and lectures. This has the dual outcome of both helping students understand if graduate school or a career in science makes sense for them, and provides students in underrepresented populations with opportunities they might not otherwise have, thereby helping to ensure diversity within STEM fields in years to come.
More than 500 REU sites are located throughout the U.S. at public and private universities, professional societies, museums and botanical gardens, research laboratories, and U.S. research and education institutions located overseas, such as BIOS.
“BIOS has served as an REU site since 1991 and, in that time, has supported nearly 200 interns from 100 different colleges and universities,” said Samantha de Putron, associate scientist at BIOS and assistant director of University Programs, where she serves as the REU faculty coordinator. She has also mentored ten REU students in the last thirteen years. “The REU program is prestigious and very competitive, so the students that come here are highly motivated and make great contributions to a variety of research programs.”
Depending on their interests, BIOS REU students have conducted research in a diverse range of topics, including projects with long-term ocean observation programs and near-shore projects based in ecology and molecular biology. The 12-week REU program at BIOS also includes a series of workshops designed to develop the skills required in both internships and graduate school, such as experimental design, statistics, writing funding proposals and broader impacts statements, and scientific writing. At the end of the internship, students present the results of their research to BIOS faculty and staff.
“When combined with the whole internship, these activities help students decide on a career path and assist in their preparations for the next steps,” de Putron said.
For many students, these internships have resulted in significant, career-enhancing achievements, such as publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals and presentations at international scientific conferences. For others, their REU experiences at BIOS led directly to post-college employment opportunities, acceptance into graduate degree programs, and long-term collaborations with BIOS colleagues. As BIOS celebrates more than twenty-five years of REU interns, we’d like to take a moment to share some of their experiences with you in a special “where are they now?” feature.
Associate Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI)
REU class of 1999
Amy Apprill, 42, came to BIOS during her senior year at the University of San Diego in California where she majored in marine science. For her REU project, she worked with Norm Nelson, a then-BIOS research scientist who is currently a researcher at the Institute for Computational Earth System Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a BIOS adjunct faculty member. Apprill’s project involved developing a program using space satellite imagery to map the waters off Bermuda and identify coral and sand habitats.
During her REU internship she learned a variety of skills, including SCUBA diving, writing computer code, and developing, conducting, and presenting scientific research. However, the best part of her experience was the time she spent with BIOS faculty, staff, and other REU interns. “I learned a lot about ‘how to be a scientist’ by spending time with these people, both formally in the lab and on the station, and also during off-hours exploring the island,” said Apprill.
Her experience at BIOS piqued her interest in coral reef science, leading her to obtain both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in biological oceanography from the University of Hawaii. Currently, her lab at WHOI uses a combination of field measurements, observations and laboratory experiments to investigate the contribution of microorganisms to the health and ecology of coral reef ecosystems. Apprill continues to be a familiar face at BIOS, working closely with Rachel Parsons, microbial oceanographer and manager of the Microbial Ecology Laboratory. Over the past four years, she and Parsons have co-authored three studies together and mentored a student, Sean McNally, who spent two years working with Apprill at WHOI as a guest investigator.
Science Communications Coordinator, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
REU class of 2008
Carmen Denman, 33, was an REU intern at BIOS during her senior year at Oregon State University (OSU), where she majored in microbiology. During her internship, she worked in the Microbial Observatory (now the Microbial Ecology Laboratory), under the guidance of Parsons, on a long-term project characterizing the microbial community structure in Devil’s Hole, Bermuda.
“The REU experience opened my eyes to what a full-time career in research could be like,” said Denman. “The interaction with scientists working in the field and the laboratory taught me more than any classroom experience could.”
In fact, because of her internship, Denman decided to change her career focus from medical school to scientific research. Having done her REU outside of the United States, she felt confident applying to graduate schools overseas and, after finishing her undergraduate degree at OSU, was accepted into a fully-funded Ph.D. program in molecular microbiology at the University of Exeter in England. Today, she lives in Saudi Arabia and works in research communication at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Denman credits her more than 10 years of science training in allowing her to transition into this field, which integrates both academic research and the scientific process.
Looking back on her experience, Denman is aware of how the REU program shaped her life, from giving her rich life experiences in countries away from home, to meeting her husband, a fellow BIOS intern. But she is also quick to note that her time at BIOS gave her a “mentor for life” in Parsons, who not only taught her a valuable skill set, but also wrote recommendation letters, sent Denman to her first international conference, and conceived of the project that resulted in Denman’s first co-authorship on a scientific paper.
Ph.D. student, University of California at San Diego
REU class of 2016
Quinn Montgomery, 25, arrived at BIOS three years ago during his senior year at the University of San Diego in California, where he majored in marine science with a specialization in biology. During his internship, he worked under the guidance of a team of BIOS scientists, including Julia Matheson, a [former] research technician; Rachel Parsons; and Rod Johnson, a physical oceanographer and assistant scientist. His research focused on studying seasonal variations in phytoplankton community structure using samples collected from the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS) site off the coast of Bermuda.
Over the course of three months, Montgomery had the opportunity to participate in multiple BATS cruises aboard the R/V Atlantic Explorer, including a 12-day research cruise to Puerto Rico. “Before I came to BIOS I’d never done any blue water oceanography, but within my first three months I’d racked up over 20 days of cruise time,” he said. “Being able to do that kind of field work as an undergraduate is extremely valuable.”
In 2017, Montgomery began working at BIOS as a research technician with the BATS team, running the high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) machine used to analyze pigments in phytoplankton. In his two years at BIOS, he went on dozens of research cruises and leveraged this experience, combined with his work in the BATS laboratory, into presentations at international conferences, including the 2017 Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) meeting and the 2018 Ocean Sciences meeting.
Rod Johnson, assistant scientist at BIOS and co-principal investigator of BATS, said that—without a doubt—Montgomery’s REU experience led to his employment at BIOS. “As an undergraduate, Quinn had impressive knowledge about phytoplankton and their role in the ocean biological pump, but he lacked the relevant experience,” he said. “While working on his REU project he had direct exposure to the HPLC system and, as a result, we were able to train him specifically for that position.” Johnson noted that BATS has hired other REU interns in the past, as they tend to have a more solid interest in oceanography, as well as a deeper understanding of ocean systems, compared to other undergraduates.
Research Technician, BIOS
REU class of 2011
Stacy Peltier, 34, was an REU intern during her senior year at Portland State University in Oregon where she majored in earth science. During her three months at BIOS she worked with senior scientist Eric Hochberg investigating the optical properties of water and their impact on coral reef health and function. Specifically, her research project focused on how the spectral properties of coral (the reflectance of pigments contained within the coral tissues) change in response to seasonal fluctuations in light and temperature.
“The REU internship was the first time that I really understood, start to finish, what it meant to be an earth scientist,” Peltier said. “I actually learned how to work on the ocean, instead of just reading about it.”
In 2012, the year after her internship, Hochberg asked if she would be willing to work for him as a summer intern and as a teaching assistant for the fall semester coral reef ecology course at BIOS. Peltier accepted and has been a technician in his lab ever since, including four years working as a benthic ecology technician on the NASA-funded COral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) mission, which she describes as “an awesome opportunity.”
During this period, Peltier had the opportunity to travel around the world, including trips for fieldwork to Australia, Guam, Palau, the Marianas Islands, and Hawaii. As a key member of the CORAL science team, she was co-author on a paper published in Limnology & Oceanography and gave multiple presentations at professional conferences, including talks at the 2017 and 2019 ASLO meetings in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, respectively, and the 2018 Ocean Sciences meeting in Oregon.
“Stacy’s experience as an REU absolutely set her up for success as a research technician by giving her a strong handle on the equipment and techniques we use in both the lab and field,” said Hochberg. “During her internship she demonstrated a willingness to work hard to understand the fundamental concepts underpinning our research, which gave her an advantage over other undergraduates who don’t learn that in the classroom.”