Undergraduate Interns Leave BIOS With Key Skills, Lasting Friendships

The 2022 BIOS National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) internship program ran for 12 weeks from August 29 through November 19. Designed to provide undergraduates with experience conducting independent scientific research, the BIOS REU program also incorporates opportunities for students to develop valuable skills that will serve them in graduate school or STEM careers. Many BIOS REU participants also walk away with lasting friendships. “I was particularly impressed with how quickly all the REUs bonded and formed a capable and supportive team,” said Luísa Castro-Meirelles, a third-year student at the College of William & Mary. “I was able to be surrounded by exceptional interns who challenged and enriched my own experiences.”

Conducting research can be a career-defining opportunity for an undergraduate student. This experience helps build their CV for graduate school, it can open doors to internships and jobs, and many students present their results at international scientific conferences. Recognizing the increasingly critical role that independent research plays in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers, each fall BIOS welcomes a cohort of undergraduate interns as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

For more than three decades, REU interns have spent 12 weeks during the fall semester working alongside BIOS faculty and scientific staff on research projects that address current topics in ocean and atmospheric science. In addition to the experiential research component, the BIOS REU program is designed to provide professional development and training in the practice of research. Interns participate in a variety of workshops, led by BIOS education and scientific staff, that develop key competencies required for graduate school or STEM careers, such as data and presentation skills, communicating science, preparing proposals, and scientific writing.

Since 2021, the BIOS REU program has operated in a format where interns conduct research around broad themes. This allows for small groups of two to four interns to undertake individual projects within each theme, while also working collaboratively toward a common research goal. This structure “offers a hands-on research experience that is focused on the ‘process of science’ rather than on specific topics within science,” said Andrew Peters, director of University Programs at BIOS.

For the 2022 REU program, the research themes were centered on coral reef science: measuring coral reef community light-use efficiency; environmental drivers of organism and community-scale metabolism; and coral larval settlement and recruitment dynamics. Here, BIOS’s 2022 REU interns provide brief descriptions of their projects and share personal reflections from their time at the Institute.

Talia Barry is a fourth-year student at The University of Tampa in Florida (U.S.) where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Marine Science and Biology. After graduating, she plans to obtain an advanced degree in marine biology studying crustacean ecology. While at BIOS, she worked with marine biologist and ecologist Samantha de Putron on a project looking at mustard hill coral (Porites astreoides) from two different reef environments in Bermuda. Her research focused on thermal resilience; specifically, how corals with different life histories (e.g., from varying depths) respond to drastic changes in ocean temperatures. Information from her research will help scientists understand if corals can survive in changing climate conditions.

“This internship taught me so much more than I thought it would and I developed my research skills through teamwork and independence,” Barry said. “The experience reaffirmed my desire to go to graduate school and continue with marine research

Jada Brown is a fourth-year student at The University of Tampa (U.S.) where she is majoring in marine biology and environmental science. Prior to interning at BIOS, she gained research experience analyzing the microbial communities of photosynthetic sea slugs. For her REU project, she worked with BIOS marine ecologist and biologist Samantha de Putron investigating the effects of rising ocean temperatures on three species of coral found in Bermuda. To assess the impact of temperature stress, she recorded a variety of parameters such as coral coloration (an indication of bleaching and zooxanthellae loss) and oxygen concentration in the water (a measure of the corals’ rates of photosynthesis). Results from her investigation will help inform coral restoration projects faced with a changing global climate.

“Having this experience working with corals allowed me to have a foot in the door for bigger opportunities in the field,” Brown said. “I feel that I can bring what I learned into other areas in my life, such as contributing ideas to a project and keeping a good schedule.”

Luísa Castro-Meirelles is a third-year student at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (U.S.) where she is pursuing a degree in biology and marine science. Prior to her REU internship, Luísa worked as a research assistant for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science on two Hawaiian reef fish projects, including one that looked at the impacts of tourism on a marine protected area. While at BIOS, she worked with reef systems ecologist Eric Hochberg to better understand the photosynthetic rates of coral reefs across different benthic community compositions (e.g., different combinations of coral, algae, and sand). The amount of photosynthesis that occurs on a reef is the driver for many of the reef’s ecosystem services that we rely on, such as commercially important fisheries, and has the potential to serve as an indicator of reef “health.”

“My REU internship was a completely unparalleled experience,” Castro-Meirelles said. “I had the opportunity to develop skills such as data handling, creating presentations, and experimental design that I would not have been able to get anywhere else. I would recommend an REU internship at BIOS for anyone who is considering going to graduate school for marine science.”

Kaylee Cooper is a fourth-year student at the University of California Los Angeles (U.S.) where she is pursuing a double-major in marine biology and political science, and a minor in evolutionary medicine. After graduating she plans to pursue an advanced degree in marine biology, followed by a career in research and academia. For her REU project, she worked with marine ecologist and biologist Samantha de Putron studying the thermal resilience of a local reef-building coral known as mustard hill coral (Porites astreoides). Using a variety of molecular techniques, she examined the coral’s response to an induced thermal stress event, which she imposed through continuous yet gradual increases in water temperature. Kaylee’s research will contribute to a three-year investigation looking at the thermal resilience of corals in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Hawaii.

“My BIOS REU internship taught me a lot of valuable skills, including how to design and implement an experiment, problem solve, and use a wide variety of scientific instruments,” Cooper said. “I would definitely recommend this program to someone who is seriously interested in marine biology and has a passion for research.”

Natalie Graham (right) is a fourth-year student at the University of Louisiana (UL) at Lafayette (U.S.) where she is majoring in marine biology, ecology, and evolution. Natalie came to BIOS with laboratory experience from her work as an undergraduate research assistant at the UL Lafayette Stauffer Phytoplankton Ecology Lab. During her time at BIOS, Natalie worked with marine benthic ecologist Yvonne Sawall and physical oceanographer Damian Grundle on the Eddy Reef Project, which investigates the effects of mesoscale eddies on coral metabolism. Specifically, she analyzed the effects that Hurricane Fiona (September 2022) had on the biogeochemical properties of the water column and how this impacted the metabolic rates of corals. Her research will help scientists understand how sudden, dramatic changes in the natural environment affect coral health.

“This internship was life changing for me,” Graham said. “I had always known that I was interested in coral ecology, but this internship is what really allowed me to understand what [a career in it] would entail.”

Min Han is a fourth-year student at the University of California, Irvine (U.S.) where he will be graduating with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, and a minor in earth and atmospheric sciences. After interacting with BIOS scientists, he is interested in pursuing a career in microbiological research related to the deep sea. For his REU project, Min worked with marine ecologist and biologist Samantha de Putron studying the thermal resilience of reef-building corals in Bermuda. Specifically, he conducted a series of experiments to provide data on how environmental variables, such as nutrients and light availability, might affect the ability of corals to recover from thermal stress. Min’s work will help create protocols for future replication studies as part of a long-term research project.

“My REU internship at BIOS was one of the best educational and personal experiences that I have had the opportunity to be a part of,” Han said. “I recommend the BIOS REU to anyone and I will continue to recommend this internship to any students who want to take the next step in their career to become ocean scientists.”

Ceridwyn Hunter is a fourth-year student at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, Michigan (U.S.) where she is pursuing a double-major in biochemistry/molecular biology and environmental biology/zoology. She has spent the past two years working for the Applied Behavioral Ecology Lab at MSU studying the movement of invasive sea lamprey in the Great Lakes River ecosystem. During her REU internship, Ceridwyn worked with reef systems ecologist Eric Hochberg on a project investigating the light use efficiency of Bermuda’s coral reefs, or how effectively sunlight is being converted to primary production. The data she collected will help answer fundamental questions about Bermuda’s coral reef systems.

“I walked away from the REU internship wishing that I could immediately start researching again, as well as being extremely grateful for the connections with other scientists and interns that I made during this time,” Hunter said. “I feel that, at the end of three months, I’ve grown as a scientist, a student, and a person through the experiences that I was fortunate enough to have here.”

Emma Sue Jones is a fourth-year student at Antioch College where she is majoring in conservation ecology and ethnobotany, a cross-disciplinary academic pursuit that allows her to study a variety of topics, including evolutionary biology, botany, ecology, and statistics. She hopes to pursue a graduate degree, then a research-based career in ecology and evolution looking at how principles of ecology are applied across multiple biomes. At BIOS, she worked with reef systems ecologist Eric Hochberg on a project documenting the benthic community structure (or the relative percentage of each benthic type, such as coral, sand, and algae) of Bermuda’s coral reef systems. Understanding benthic community structure allows scientists to calculate productivity rates, which can improve their understanding of reef ecological function.

“The BIOS REU internship was rigorous and challenging, but it also allowed me to explore a scientific question and have the independence and autonomy to collect my own data and analyze it accordingly,” Jones said. “The experience gave me self-confidence, as a scientist and a young woman, and through the process I learned that I am capable of conducting real, meaningful research.”

Isabel Martínez-Farrington is a fourth-year student at the University of Puerto Rico Humacao where they are studying coastal marine biology. One of Isabel’s major goals is to partner with Para la Naturaleza, Puerto Rico’s leading conservation organization, to develop a naturalist’s pocket guide to the country’s marine botanical species. For their REU project, Isabel worked with marine benthic ecologist Yvonne Sawall and contributed to an ongoing time-series of coral reef community metabolism measurements in Bermuda. They investigated how environmental conditions, such as water flow and light availability, impact rates of photosynthesis and respiration on the reef, and whether these rates have seasonal variation. This information helps scientists better understand reef ecosystem functioning, improving predictions of how coral reefs will respond to environmental stressors, such as sea-level rise and climate change.

“There were many opportunities to be a first-hand participant in the design, elaboration and execution of my research project,” Martínez-Farrington said. “The internship taught me key skills that I will definitely use during my professional career. I would recommend BIOS REU to anyone looking for experience in any ocean science field.”

The 2023 BIOS REU internship program will run from August 28 through November 17. Available research projects and a link to the online application form will be available on the BIOS REU website when applications open. To stay up to date about program announcements, please send a request to education@bios.edu.