The turbulence set in motion by COVID-19 has not spared academia, but Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has ensured that a program engaging students in research is continuing this summer and offering the same meaningful experiences, networking opportunities, and career prospects as before.
The Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) is a 10-week paid summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, hosted by Scripps Oceanography. It is designed to engage students in earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences research at a world-renowned institution where each SURF fellow conducts original research under the mentorship of a Scripps faculty member or mentor.
The main goals of the SURF program are to increase student diversity in geosciences, successfully prepare participants to pursue career pathways, and to recruit individuals from institutions with limited undergraduate research opportunities. According to the American Geosciences Institute, geosciences are among the least diverse science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in the U.S., with only 10 percent of doctoral degrees awarded to underrepresented individuals. The SURF program has prioritized increasing diversity at Scripps and the geosciences field as a whole.
This summer, while many REUs have been cancelled, the SURF program will welcome 19 students—73 percent of whom identify as an underrepresented minority—in a new hybrid model. Additionally, thanks to a supplemental grant awarded to Scripps, a new “Pop-Up REU” program was created to allow an additional 19 students to participate in a new fully remote summer research experience.
The SURF program is primarily funded from a National Science Foundation REU site grant from the GEO-OCE program. In addition, one fellowship is funded from the Scripps Director’s Office and there are often other Scripps-supported fellowships.
Approximately 150 students have participated in the SURF program since it launched at Scripps Oceanography in 2011. In each cohort between 65 to 75 percent identify as underrepresented minorities. To date, about 75 percent of former SURF students have gone on to graduate school or careers in Earth and ocean sciences.
“It is without question that I would have never made the decision to apply to graduate school without the SURF program,” said current Scripps PhD student Jeramy Dedrick, a former fellow from the 2017 cohort. “Whether it was the research project I participated in, professional and 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.”
There are currently 12 former SURF participants now at Scripps as admitted PhD students, 90 percent of whom identify as underrepresented minorities. Additionally, two of the four former SURF fellows that have graduated from Scripps with master’s degrees or PhDs come from underrepresented backgrounds. The program has also generated increased diversity at other earth sciences institutions, as SURF alumni are currently enrolled in PhD programs at Columbia University, Princeton University, Purdue University, Penn State, UC Santa Barbara, University of Washington, and others.
“It’s important to Scripps that the SURF program carries on, even if some of our projects have to be done remotely,” said Jane Teranes, Scripps Teaching Professor and SURF Program Director. “Exposing undergraduates to research opportunities has the potential to increase the students’ connection to their majors, enhance student learning, positively influence students’ decisions to continue in careers, and to enroll in graduate programs in their respective majors. These opportunities are especially important for underrepresented minorities, Black and Indigenous people of color, and first-generation students in providing them the confidence to pursue graduate degrees or careers in geosciences.”
For SURF 2020, admitted students come mostly from Southern California to reduce need for air travel and they all have the option to live in on-campus housing.
“Even with the COVID-19 outbreak, we know that many students are in need of housing over the summer so we felt it was important to offer housing as usual, even as we are planning for most of our projects and our workshops and seminars to be done remotely,” said Teranes. “Our planning does allow for the potential for some limited in-person connections if that looks possible at some point in the future. So, that’s why we have a ‘hybrid’ model.”
Scripps Oceanography faculty serving as advisors for the hybrid program include: Sarah Aarons, Doug Bartlett, Simone Bauman-Pickering, Anela Choy, Sarah Gille, Vicki Grassian, Paul Jensen, Nicholas Lutsko, Deirdre Lyons, Mattias Morzfeld, Richard Norris, Sarah Purkey, Kate Ricke, Brice Semmens, Dave Stegman, and Lisa Tauxe.
One of the Scripps faculty members taking a leading role in mentoring SURF fellows this year is marine ecologist Stuart Sandin, whose lab is in charge of the new Pop-up REU program and who leads the 100 Island Challenge, which collects imagery to capture the structure of coral reefs from across the world's tropics.
“For the Pop-up REU program, we will be working with the students to teach them the foundations of marine community ecology,” said Sandin, who is also the director for the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. “One of the strongest tools that we have for the study of ecology in the ocean is that of observation: recording what we see in marine habitats, including the number and diversity of organisms in a location, where exactly these organisms live, and studies of their survival, growth, and behavior. When we collect such observational data systematically, we can begin to paint a picture of what structures the ecology of marine communities.”
This virtual version of fieldwork will allow these additional 19 SURF students, who will be participating fully remotely, to study what species live on the coral reef, where they live relative to one another, and how these communities change across the 1,000 sites where the 100 Island Challenge team has collected these images of reefs.
In Sandin’s lab, SURF students will contribute a significant amount of data analysis to help future scientists develop ways of effectively and efficiently pursuing research in the field. They will build skills in observation, quantification, species identification, ecological surveys, and applied computer science and engineering, as the students use established and custom-built software to navigate these ecological systems.
Through paid summer research opportunities, students taking part in SURF are given more opportunities to overcome a common obstacle in the sciences. The SURF program offers participants a $6,000 stipend, and will continue to do so for the hybrid and pop-up program this summer in order to support any financial challenges the students are facing.
“Since a lot of other research programs, internships and jobs were all being cancelled this year, we felt it was important for Scripps to provide students with strong summer research opportunities,” said Teranes.
The Scripps team worked to avoid cancelling the program since most students who participate are about to enter their senior year, meaning they would not be eligible next summer. The summertime can also be a pivotal period of growth for many students, as they develop and advance in their studies and professional prospects before graduation.
Faculty mentors will be networking and communicating with SURF fellows by utilizing communication platforms such as Slack and Zoom. The program organizers are optimistic for the success of the remote program and will use distance to their advantage. There are plans to have a wide range of guest speakers who will tune in remotely to enhance research seminars.
Although students will not be able to work on typical laboratory projects, they will focus on learning and developing more data analyses and programming skills, which are imperative in a wide range of scientific applications.
Despite some of the challenges associated with remote learning, Sandin and many other faculty members are optimistic about the 2020 SURF Program, calling it a “community effort” to provide impactful research opportunities for these bright students.