Study abroad, research opportunities help Jamestown sisters excel at URI

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Both headed for grad school following URI commencement May 17

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 4, 2009 – Rebekah and Rachel Wigton traveled very different paths during their years at the University of Rhode Island, but as they prepare to graduate on May 17, they both find themselves near the top of their class having achieved tremendous success on campus and off.

Rebekah, 23, is headed to graduate school in the fall, perhaps in England, to study neuroscience, while sister Rachel, 21, will enroll at Old Dominion University on her way to a Ph.D. in marine biology.

“Living on an island, it was easy to get interested in marine biology,” Rachel said. “We’d go for walks on the beach looking for interesting stuff, and Dad got us scuba certified. Jamestown has just about every marine ecosystem in New England right here in one place.”

Rebekah, too, was always interested in the sciences, but she chose to study biomedical engineering at URI through its five-year International Engineering Program, which also required that she study a foreign language. She chose Spanish.

“I always loved problem solving,” said Rebekah. “My dad is an engineer, he’s my hero, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. It seemed like an interesting field, one that I should get into, and it best suited my abilities.”

Rebekah spent a year studying and working in Spain, a time she described as “an amazing experience of learning about the Spanish culture and meeting a lot of international students.”

For six months she worked at a university in the city of Zaragoza conducting signal processing research with scientists studying the heart. It was that experience that convinced her to pursue graduate school and study neuroscience.

“The people I worked with were absolutely amazing, they were helpful with learning the language, and the professors were really nice,” Rebekah said. “I always wanted to go to grad school, but over there I learned that it was something that I could excel in.”

While she struggled somewhat to feel comfortable speaking Spanish, the experience eventually brought her out of her shell. The experience also convinced her to find opportunities to conduct neurological research when she returned to URI. So she was invited to join a research team led by Professor Walt Besio, who uses a newly developed electrode to study what Rebekah called “the brain-computer interface.”

“Mostly I’ve been doing smaller tasks, writing background papers, studying testing parameters,” she said. “It’s very interesting and I’ve learned a lot, not the least of which is how to read scientific research papers.”

Like her sister, Rachel Wigton didn’t spend her entire college career within the confines of the URI campuses. The summer after her sophomore year she joined Professor Brad Seibel on a month-long research cruise to the Gulf of California to study jumbo squid.

“For a lot of people, when they think of marine creatures, they mostly think of the mammals,” said Rachel. “But cephalopods – squid and octopus and cuttlefish – have really interesting adaptations to the marine environment, and you can find them in all of the oceans in the world. Deep sea cephalopods are especially interesting.”

Living on a boat for a month with 20-30 other scientists was somewhat challenging, she added, but that experience was also what convinced her to get a doctorate and continue to study squid. In addition to her research cruise, she also spent time in Bermuda in 2007 and 2008 taking classes and conducting research on the metabolic rates of octopi and sea hares.

Rachel completed her URI undergraduate degree requirements in December, and has been working full-time since then with marine scientists at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, where she had served as an intern for the previous 18 months. Among the projects she has worked on there has been an effort to reduce the potential for ship collisions with whales and sea turtles.

During their time at URI, neither sister let their busy schedules of traveling and conducting research get in the way of extracurricular activities. A triathlete and marathoner, Rachel was a member of the URI Scuba Club and served as president of the URI Marine Science Society, while Rebekah was a member of several engineering societies on campus and played on the women’s rugby team. Both participated in the URI Cycling Club.

“The rugby team was one of the most important things I did here at URI,” Rebekah said. “”I absolutely love it. I adore all the girls, it’s so fun, and it’s a good way to get out excess energy. I’ve always been accidentally violent playing sports, knocking people down unintentionally, and rugby sounded like the perfect sport for me. I got hooked right away.”