NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – August 3, 2015 — Undergraduate students from 12 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada are spending 10 weeks this summer conducting cutting-edge oceanographic research through the University of Rhode Island’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships in Oceanography (SURFO) program. Now in its 31st year, the program was the first of its kind in the nation.
This year’s students – from Tufts University, McGill University, Colorado School of Mines, and Rutgers University, among others – were each assigned to a research project led by faculty and graduate students at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography to gain an appreciation for the interdisciplinary character of marine science research.
“One purpose of the SURFO program is to retain students in science fields by opening their eyes to possibilities in ancillary science-heavy disciplines, like oceanography,” said Associate Marine Research Scientist Lucie Maranda, who coordinates the program. “We have an amazing group of students this summer; they work hard and they are fun to be around.”
According to Maranda, the program targets well-rounded students from various disciplines who have strong backgrounds in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, computer science or engineering. Students with limited exposure to oceanographic research at their home institutions are strongly encouraged to apply.
Nicole Statler, a University of Portland mathematics major from Omak, Wash., applied to the program to gain experience doing research and to see whether she wanted to pursue a career in oceanography.
“The program has been amazing,” she said. “I’ve learned about the disciplines within oceanography, about different career pathways, how to give a presentation on my research, how to write a research paper, and just the research process in general.”
Working in collaboration with National Park Service oceanographer Amanda Babson, Statler is spending the summer examining tides and the flooding risk at coastal national parks under various sea level rise scenarios. She created tools to collect data about water levels at particular sites and compute spring high tide values to determine whether the sites could become inundated.
McGill University senior Hyunyung Boo is working with URI Assistant Professor Melissa Omand to automate data collection from an underwater holographic microscope being used to observe microplankton and marine debris.
“I really like feeling independent while working on this project,” said Boo, a resident of Lexington, Mass. “Since the microscope is a relatively new technology, I spend a lot of time just trying things. I’m also really enjoying being able to use my programming background to tackle problems in scientific research.”
A biology and computer science major, Boo enjoys finding math and programming applications in the disciplines of biology and environmental science. “And because oceanography is interdisciplinary, it’s also the perfect way to incorporate life and physical sciences, as well as technology,” she said.
For Kyle Rennell of Alexandria, Pa., the fellowship program was an opportunity to conduct marine research that is not available at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, where he is a senior engineering geology and applied geology major. He said the program “has provided incredible insight and perspective into what grad school will be like.”
Working with Professor Rebecca Robinson, his research has examined the history of biological productivity in Narragansett Bay and how it relates to human effects on the bay. By collecting sediment cores and looking for evidence of diatom skeletons preserved in the sediment, he is calculating the bay’s historic productivity.
“We are then able to look at the change in sea surface temperatures and nutrients that have entered the bay due to human activity within the past 150 years and see if there is a possible correlation between the productivity and these influences,” Rennell said.
Keaton Brenneman, a senior marine science major at Rutgers University from Metuchen, N.J., applied to the program as a way to get hands-on research experience as he tries to prepare for life after graduation.
“The thing I like the most about the program is learning about the different career opportunities in oceanography,” Brenneman said. “The various faculty members I’ve talked to have been candid about their careers and eager to impart their wisdom to me. I’ve been given lots of helpful advice that will prepare me well for my future.”
His summer research with Professors Thomas Rossby and Kathleen Donohue compared measurements of the Gulf Stream with predictions of where the Gulf Stream is and how fast it is moving. “This comparison is invaluable to ocean modelers who need to determine possible errors in their models,” he said. “Improving a computer model’s ability to resolve the Gulf Stream not only benefits the shipping industry and commercial fisheries, but it can also lead to more accurate climate modeling and weather forecasting.”
The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships in Oceanography program is funded by the National Science Foundation. More than 200 students have participated through the years, and 75 percent have pursued graduate school in a science, math or engineering discipline.