Rachel Chen is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of California San Diego, majoring in marine biology. Chen grew up in Fremont, located in California's Bay Area. Her passion for marine biology drew her to join Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s SURF program in 2020. She now works at Scripps Oceanography in Anela Choy's lab under the mentorship of current NOAA affiliate Elan Portner.
explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?
Rachel Chen: I knew that I wanted to study marine science in college, so picking UC San Diego as my dream school was an easy choice due to its proximity to the ocean and its affiliation with Scripps. I wanted the chance to explore research as an undergraduate student, and there are tons of opportunities to get involved. I also loved that students at UC San Diego can take classes taught by Scripps professors on the Scripps campus. Plus, you can't beat the weather in La Jolla!
en: What are you researching at Scripps?
RC: I am currently working on an honors thesis where I am using a trait-based approach to understand cephalopod consumption patterns by the longnose lancetfish. This mesopelagic predator, which lives approximately 650–3,300 feet below the sea surface, is common bycatch on the Hawaii-based longline fishery. The trait-based method uses the food web ecology and tries to explain why a predator is consuming the prey that it does. Instead of looking at the results of the feeding interaction (i.e. the species of prey), trait-based approaches look at the prey's traits to understand potential drivers of predation behavior. This approach can give us a broader understanding of how a predator's diet might change as prey availability changes.
This project builds off work I accomplished this summer in the Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) REU. For the SURF program, I explored how the abundance and taxonomies (families) of cephalopods consumed by the lancetfish change over time. Cephalopods, like squids and octopuses, are important prey for many open ocean predators and help to transfer energy from the bottom to the top of the food web. I am now examining the biological and functional traits of the cephalopod prey and comparing changes in the traits and taxonomies of cephalopods consumed over time. This research will attempt to explain lancetfish predation behavior and reveal cephalopods' function within the forage community of the central North Pacific. It was extremely fortuitous that I spent my summer and this school year studying cephalopods since they are my favorite animal. I am learning so much about cephalopods and the important roles they play within many ocean ecosystems.
en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?
RC: I grew up going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which first sparked my love for the ocean and my desire to study marine science. I loved learning from all the various exhibits and wanted to know more about the ocean and its processes so I could share my passion with others. I did not have a strong interest in the deep sea before coming to UC San Diego. However, I ended up volunteering first in the Levin Lab and later in the Choy Lab, both of which are focused on deep-sea research. After learning more about the strange adaptations deep-sea animals have to survive in such extreme conditions, I now have a much greater appreciation and interest in studying this incredible environment and the animals that inhabit it. There is still so much we don't know about the deep sea despite it being the largest ecosystem on the planet. It's exciting to get to contribute to expanding our knowledge!
en: What's life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.
RC: Before the pandemic, almost all of my classes took place on the Scripps campus. I loved taking the shuttle from the main campus to Scripps because I got to look out over the gorgeous coastline on the ride down the hill. I would usually sit outside Sverdrup Hall or in the Eckart Building to catch up on homework between classes or go into the lab to help out with various projects. Since my honors thesis was designed to be completely remote due to COVID-19, most of my work is now done on the computer. I set weekly deadlines with my mentor and work on the project accordingly, which consists of reading papers, combing through primary sources to find information on various cephalopods. It can be difficult to find the time and motivation to work on the project after spending hours in front of the computer for online classes, but it's always fun to learn more about and look at pictures of deep-sea cephalopods!
en: What's the most exciting thing about your work?
RC: While the opportunities are few and far between, one of the most exciting things about working in a deep-sea food web ecology lab is getting to go out to sea! I was extremely fortunate to participate in a research cruise this summer on R/V Sally Ride with the Choy Lab. Even though my first cruise happened during COVID-19, I was still able to get hands-on experience operating different oceanographic sampling equipment and identifying specimens. While the cruise was filled with a lot of hard work and long hours, I loved the experience and learned so much about data collection methods that I had only read about previously.
en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?
RC: I am tremendously grateful to have had such exceptional mentors throughout my undergraduate career. Dr. Anela Choy was the first professor I had in marine science who is a woman of color, and her journey from undergrad to her current position at Scripps has inspired me and prompted my self-reflection into my future goals. I am also incredibly fortunate to be under the mentorship of Dr. Elan Portner, whose passion and enthusiasm for science has helped me grow as a scientist. Dr. Lilly McCormick has also been an important mentor for me, as she gave me my first opportunity to get involved in research. Finally, I am forever indebted to my parents for their constant support and encouragement to pursue my passion for marine science.
en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?
RC: As an undergraduate student, balancing school, research, extracurriculars, and personal life can be difficult. However, I've learned how to properly manage my time while still putting forth my best work in all aspects of my life. Dealing with imposter syndrome is a huge challenge that I, and many other scientists, regardless of career level, face every day. I often feel like I'm not smart enough or don't have the skills required to succeed in science. After talking to other students and researchers, I've come to recognize that it's certainly not expected that I have the answers to every question, especially as an undergraduate student. I try to remind myself that being a scientist is all about exploring what we don't know, and it's up to us to find ways to figure out the answers to our questions.
en: What are your plans post-Scripps?
RC: After graduation, I plan on taking some time off of school to explore careers in marine science outside of academia, such as in fisheries science, conservation, and management. I would eventually like to go to graduate school to get a PhD and contribute to our current understanding of the ocean. I hope to one day inspire other young scientists and to spark their own interest and appreciation for the ocean!
You can follow Rachel’s journey to graduate school and her day to day adventures on Twitter @RachelSChen.