Around the Pier: SURF Program Fosters Network of Support for Students to Continue to Graduate School

Q&A with several 2019 SURF participants, including two alumni mentors who are currently pursuing PhDs at Scripps Oceanography
Author
Topics
Share

For 10 weeks every summer, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego welcomes a diverse group of about twenty undergraduate students from across the United States to conduct research and network with peers and mentors.

The Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program gives admitted students the opportunity to dive into science, to engage in research aimed at understanding and protecting the planet, and to forge life-long connections within the science community. The program serves to increase diversity within the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields by encouraging students from underrepresented groups to apply, as well as those from universities with limited research opportunities. The SURF program receives the majority of its funding from the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Sciences Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) site grant. Application information for the summer 2020 program will be available in January.

The SURF program functions as a stepping stone for undergraduate students pursuing their PhDs by providing resources beyond hands-on research experience, including weekly research training workshops, a graduate record exam preparation course, and exposure to grant writing. The program is designed to prepare students for a successful career in earth and marine sciences by equipping them with the necessary tools and skills to explore these fields in a more purposeful direction.

In addition to gaining foundational research experience, graduate school preparation, and fundamental mentor-mentee relationships, participants also receive a $6,000 stipend, on-campus housing, and compensated travel fees to and from San Diego. By providing these resources for participants, the SURF program emboldens undergraduate students to continue their path of discovery and ambition.

After spending ten-weeks conducting original research, the SURF program culminates in late August with a research symposium that showcases participants’ scientific findings. (View photo gallery here.)

Many SURF alumni continue on to earn their PhDs and make progress in the earth and marine sciences both at Scripps and at other institutions. We interviewed two 2019 SURF participants and two alumni who are now working towards their PhDs at Scripps about their experiences in the program and how SURF has been instrumental in planning their future and reaching their goals.

 

Nicole Posadas, SURF Fellow 2019

Nicole Posadas is currently starting her senior year at the University of Pennsylvania where she is majoring in earth science.

Image
A young woman stands near a research poster

What prompted you to apply for the SURF program at Scripps?

I was immediately attracted to the SURF program because I was interested in learning about how ocean and atmospheric dynamics play a role in affecting weather, climate, air quality, and daily human health altogether. I've also always been interested in air quality and its effects on low-income and/or underrepresented communities, so I was also hoping to gain more hands-on experience with atmospheric sciences since it has attracted me as a potential graduate school or career path. 

What did you research while at Scripps?

As part of the SURF program, I conducted research that focused on quantifying organic functional group composition at Pismo Beach under the guidance of Scripps Professor Lynn Russell. In other words, I was attempting to quantify the main chemical groups that compose the aerosols to learn more about their chemical composition and potential sources. Understanding their composition is also important for understanding how aerosols potentially affect human health. A few lab members had gone to Pismo Beach and collected air samples using two different sized filter pumps for about three weeks before I arrived to Scripps. I was able to analyze all the samples using Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) Spectroscopy in a clean room and do data analysis using algorithms in R script (a computer programming language).

What are your plans for the future?

Looking ahead, I hope to apply to attend graduate school in the fall of 2020 to pursue a master's degree in either atmospheric science, soil science, or a combination of both. I am also considering potentially participating in a Recent Graduates Program, a year-long career development program intended for recent graduates​ to gain more work experience before pursuing a higher level degree. I'm currently interested in a Recent Graduates Program with a government organization, such as the United States Department of Agriculture.

How do you believe your experiences in the SURF program will help you in your future endeavors?

So far, it has helped me solidify my decision to attend graduate school and continue to do research. This opportunity not only paved the way for my interests, but also equipped me with the resources and skills necessary to pursue them further. Additionally, I feel I will definitely rely on the network of students and mentors when making academic and professional decisions that could help shape the course of my future.

What has been your favorite part about being in the SURF program?

My favorite part of the SURF program has definitely been the network. Being surrounded by individuals passionate about understanding or addressing topics and issues related to protecting the environment and future conditions on a daily basis is unlike anything I have ever experienced. It's very interesting to see how students and professors come together, and on some occasions are collaborating, for a similar mission despite being in different fields.

 

Jeramy Dedrick, Scripps PhD Student, SURF Mentor and Alumni, 2017

Jeramy Dedrick attended Texas A&M University where he received a bachelor’s degree in meteorology. He is currently a first year student in the climate science PhD program at Scripps.

Image
A young man stands near a pier

What are you researching now at Scripps?

The climate sciences PhD program at Scripps is great because it allows for research/academic freedom during the first year where I can engage in a variety of research experiences with different experts within this broad field. I am currently engaging in two concurrent projects pertaining to boundary layer aerosol particle interactions with clouds and climate in the Southern Ocean/Antarctica and being advised by Lynn Russell. 

What prompted you to apply for the SURF program during your undergraduate career?

During the early years of my undergraduate career, I was also interested in the possibility of research to supplement my coursework, though I did not have a specific idea of what really piqued my interests. Learning of the SURF program during my junior year was an exciting moment because I saw the opportunity to participate in a number of research projects that spanned my broad interests in atmospheric science, oceanography, and climate science. Several of the available projects seemed to be so specifically tailored to the interests I was beginning to form during this year, which encouraged me to apply. 

What did you research while in the SURF program?

As a SURF fellow, I conducted research under Lynn Russell. The project was an examination and characterization of aerosol particles and their ability to act as seeds for cloud formation in the western Antarctic. This project was a component of the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement West Antarctic Radiation Experiment (AWARE) funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation. My current research project is an expansion of the work I completed during SURF.

How do you believe your experiences in the SURF program helped you reach your goals?

It is without question that I would have never made the decision to apply to graduate school without the SURF program. Whether it was the research project I participated in, professional/academic seminars and workshops, or interaction with other SURF fellows, graduate students, and professors, I was able to learn about the terrifying and exciting world of research within academia. SURF gave me the tools to become an efficient researcher and inquisitive student in the classroom. During SURF, I was able to receive guidance on applying to graduate school and fellowships, foster a productive environment in academia, and was also afforded the opportunity to contribute to a paper that has since been published in a major journal.

What was your favorite part about being in the SURF program?

My favorite part about being in SURF were the connections I was able to make during the program. I made lifelong friendships that will be beneficial both personally and professionally and I gained important connections with faculty at Scripps that aided in my admission and prospects for future projects and collaborations.

What are your plans for the future?

Following the completion of my PhD, I hope to use the skills gained during my time at Scripps in a future career as a researcher or professor that promotes and leads efforts towards an increase in diversity and inclusion within the geosciences and all STEM fields. My time spent in the SURF program showed me that science is much more successful and accessible with these aforementioned efforts. I also hope to improve general public engagement and knowledge of climate science to more effectively cultivate sustainable environments across the globe for current and future generations.

 

Gabrielle Meza, SURF Fellow 2019

Gabrielle Meza is currently starting her senior year at the University of California Berkeley where she is majoring in genetic and plant biology.

Image
A young woman in a lab holds a biological sample

What prompted you to apply for the SURF program at Scripps?

I applied to SURF because I have always been interested in Scripps; I grew up in San Diego and went to La Jolla a lot growing up. I have little experience with marine sciences so I applied hoping for a chance to do marine biology.

What did you research while at Scripps?

I studied the spatial and temporal abundance of Synechococcus (a cyanobacteria) in San Diego Bay under the mentorship of Scripps Professor Brian Palenik.

What are your plans for the future?

I hope to apply to graduate school this upcoming year and get started on my PhD. I hope to continue research in marine microbiology.

How do you believe your experiences in the SURF program will help you in your future endeavors?

I learned a lot about marine systems and got a better idea on what I want to do for the rest of my life. I figured out which areas of study I do like and areas I don’t find particularly interesting. Overall, my experience in SURF gave me important insight on applying to graduate school.

What has been your favorite part about being in the SURF program?

My favorite part was all the people I met—so many cool people in my cohort as well as people who gave amazing advice. My graduate mentor Ivan Moreno was super helpful in getting me started in graduate applications. I also had the chance to meet amazing researchers at this institution that I would have never been able to meet in person otherwise.

 

Ivan Moreno, Scripps PhD Student, SURF Mentor and Alumni, 2017

Ivan Moreno attended California State University Dominguez Hills where he received a bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology. He is currently a second year student in the marine biology PhD program at Scripps.

Image
A young man on a research vessel at sea

What are you researching now at Scripps?

My current projects encompass a variety of niche topics that all revolve around thermophilic microbial mats, tight knit communities of different microbes. I am broadly interested in the interactions that happen within these mats between microbial eukaryotes and prokaryotes. I want to answer how it is that this community functions as a whole and how the microbes within it create and maintain its stability. This work is all done in the lab of my advisor, Brian Palenik.

What prompted you to apply for the SURF program during your undergraduate career?

I found out about Scripps through a YouTube video back in 2016 that talked about discovering the microbes living in seafloor sediments and understanding their functions. Shortly after I learned what Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) were from my research advisor in undergrad and then spent the rest of the year looking at programs with faculty who conducted similar research. At the time, I was mostly interested in microbial ecology, but I always had a soft spot for extremophiles. As soon as I found out that Scripps had their own REU, I applied and mentioned my interests in working with such faculty.

What did you research while in the SURF program?

I was offered a position in Brian Palenik’s lab, which led me to start the project I’m currently working on. During the summer of the SURF program, I spent my days identifying the microbes isolated from the hot springs at our study site. I also did a bit of work in trying to create competition experiments on agar plates between diatoms and cyanobacteria that were all found at these hot springs.

How do you believe your experiences in the SURF program helped you reach your goals?

The ability to explore a research topic I was deeply passionate about in a low commitment way was absolutely ideal. Being at Scripps surrounded by graduate students and faculty who presented me with valuable feedback and advice was also a huge plus. The SURF program itself included a variety of workshops and resources that continue to be useful. Examples include a workshop that taught me about the National Science Foundation-Graduate Research Fellowship Program, guidance on how to do well on the GRE, and the opportunity to attend Q&A panels with graduate students who were also once SURF students.

What was your favorite part about being in the SURF program?

As a student who comes from a very untraditional background where I had to work 30 hours a week while enrolled in school full time and conducting research throughout undergrad, I’d have to say that the best part of the SURF program was having the freedom to focus on one single thing. Thanks to the generous stipend and housing provided by the SURF program during the summer, I was able to continue paying my bills and pursue a passion of mine full-time. Aside from this, the connections and friends I made during the summer has developed into a network of colleagues I still keep in touch with today.

What are your plans for the future?

After mentoring undergraduate students for the first time this summer, one of whom was a SURF student, I found guiding a student through a research project as well as providing advice about applying and going into graduate school extremely rewarding. In the long term, I would love to have my own lab and be able to provide an environment like the ones I’ve been a part of for students who come from backgrounds similar to mine where they may find it hard to transition into a world that they are entirely unfamiliar with. In the near future, however, I’d like to continue pursuing and answering research questions about thermophilic microbial mats and other extremophiles. The aspect of astrobiology that involves using analogs on earth as a potential for life in other extreme environments in outer space and the topics of origin of life also draw in my keen curiosity and is something I would love to pursue in the future as a postdoctoral researcher.
 

Related Image Gallery: SURF Program 2019

 

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.