Summertime for the Adventurous

Undergrads from around the country spend a summer immersed in Scripps science through the SURF program

Many students look forward to summertime as a welcome break from classes and schoolwork. But participants in the Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) are not your average students. This summer, 20 ambitious college students from across the United States spent their time in labs and in the field conducting research in the earth, ocean, and atmospheric sciences as part of the SURF program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

Funded largely by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences, SURF is a ten-week summer research experience for undergraduates (REU) that engages students in cutting-edge scientific research alongside a scientist mentor. This program is designed to help students prepare for graduate school and careers in marine and earth science.

The SURF program also seeks to increase the diversity of students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and actively recruits minorities and students from institutions with limited undergraduate research opportunities.

“Our goal with the SURF program is to provide summer research opportunities to undergraduate students from across the country who are interested in ocean science and related fields, but who might not have access to these research facilities at their home institutions,” said Jane Teranes, SURF program director and vice-chair of the undergraduate program at Scripps. 

This summer, 20 students received SURF fellowships, including two students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) through the UC-HBCU Initiative award. This three-year grant, funded by the UC Office of the President, provides summer program support for students attending HBCUs, schools mainly comprising African-American students—a population that is often underrepresented in UC graduate and professional programs.

Additionally, this year the SURF program received a supplemental NSF grant for underrepresented students, which supported three students from tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). Tribal colleges are often the only postsecondary institutions within some of our nation’s poorest rural areas and are essential in fostering American Indian culture, languages, and traditions.

Scripps alum and marine ecologist Marco Hatch, now director of the National Indian Center for Marine Environmental Research and Education (NICMERE) at Northwest Indian College (NWIC) in Bellingham, Wash., worked with Scripps to help foster the connection between tribal students and the SURF program. A member of the Samish Nation, Hatch knows firsthand how important undergraduate research experiences are for tribal students interested in ocean and earth science.

With six campuses around Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, NWIC supports a vast network of tribal connections and Hatch notes its importance in “bringing culturally relevant education to tribes that can’t access traditional colleges.” NWIC is currently the only tribal college with a native environmental science program with a marine ecology focus, driven by the research carried out in the Salish Sea Research Center.

The SURF program presents a unique opportunity for students at NWIC and other tribal colleges to gain exposure to new research environments and ecosystems.

“I’m excited and happy to have research opportunities available for my students at Scripps,” said Hatch, who graduated from Scripps in 2012 with a Ph.D. in biological oceanography.

The tribal students chosen to participate in this summer’s SURF program included Leila Whitener, a senior at NWIC majoring in native environmental science; Aissa Yazzie, a recent graduate from NWIC with a bachelor’s degree in native environmental science; and A.J. Somers, a senior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in life science at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana.

A female student aboard a research vessel holds marine specimens in her cupped hands
SURF fellow Aissa Yazzie aboard the R/V New Horizon during a six-day Summer Krill Expedition. Courtesy photo.

The scientific research conducted by the tribal students during the SURF program varied widely, covering studies in marine biology, microbiology, and geoscience.

Yazzie, a member of the Navajo Indian tribe from Arizona, worked in the lab of Lisa Levin, professor and director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps. Here, Yazzie looked for stable isotopes of white fish muscles in benthic communities. One of the highlights of her SURF program experience was getting to participate in a six-day research cruise aboard R/V New Horizon.

“It was my fist time on a boat for that long, and it was such an enjoyable experience. It was great to see the whole cycle of a research expedition over the course of six days,” said Yazzie, who plans to attend grad school in the future and hopes to work for a tribe or non-profit organization doing something that helps the environment. She is looking forward to presenting her SURF program research at the 2015 Aquatic Sciences Meeting in Granada, Spain.

Whitener, a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe in Olympia, Wash., studied the chemical and biological cycling of trace metals in marine systems in the lab of Scripps Professor and geoscientist Katherine Barbeau. She analyzed seawater samples using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). Whitener was “very excited” to learn the HPLC technique as she will likely use it in the future, as she plans to work in resource management for her tribe after graduating.

Somers, a member of the Ketchikan Indian Corporation of Alaska, worked in the lab of research microbiologist Paul Jensen at the Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health, where he cultured and tested marine bacteria to see if they produced toxic compounds that have been observed accumulating in the marine food chain.

“This experience has really opened my eyes to natural products in the biotech industry,” said Somers, who originally became inspired to study health science after a close friend was diagnosed with HIV. The SURF program further reinforced Somers’ goal of one day obtaining his Ph.D., as he plans to work in biomedicine to help find better treatments for people with HIV and cancer.

Four people at a dock stand in front of a large research vessel, R/V New Horizon
SURF fellows A.J. Somers, Aissa Yazzie, Kieu Tran, and former Scripps undergraduate student Yuzo Yanigatsuru stand in front of R/V New Horizon shortly before departing for the Summer Krill Expedition. Photo: Aissa Yazzie

In addition to conducting scientific research in world-class facilities, Whitener, Yazzie, Somers, and the 17 other SURF participants became immersed with the Scripps community over the course of the program, where they made valuable connections with teachers/mentors and bonded with fellow students through activities such as surfing and snorkeling. Weekly research training workshops and a GRE preparation course also helped the students plan for futures in science and academia.

Skye Augustine, associate director of NICMERE and member of the Stz’uminus First Nation in Canada, notes the she and Hatch are pleased with the research opportunities provided to tribal students through the SURF program.

“We look forward to continuing to grow our collaboration with Scripps in the coming years,” she said.

Three students from this year’s SURF program were selected to present research posters at the annual Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) National Conference, held Oct. 16-18 in Los Angeles. This exciting opportunity gave the students a taste of life as a graduate student. Scripps regularly participates in events such as SACNAS to stay connected with fellow science and academic organizations and to network and recruit diverse students.

“We’ve been able to establish a network of colleagues who are connected to communities of diverse students, such as Scripps Ph.D. alumni, like Dr. Marco Hatch at NWIC, our local partnership with the Ocean Discovery Institute, and research collaborators at HBCUs,” said Teranes. “This network helps us recruit undergraduate students early in their careers to consider research opportunities and careers in the ocean sciences, and the SURF program is designed to help them succeed in these fields.”

The 2014 SURF program concluded in late August with a summer symposium at the Scripps Seaside Forum, where students presented posters detailing their research projects.  

“It’s really exciting. I feel the energy in the room,” said Lisa Tauxe, chair and deputy director of Scripps Education and distinguished professor of geophysics, during her welcome speech.

“We envisioned the SURF program as a dynamic research experience for undergrads, but it’s also very important to us as educators and scientists because we’re investing in the students of the future.”

Before the seemingly endless SURF summer drew to a close, Tauxe left the students with a sound bit of advice: “Take what you’ve learned here at Scripps and use it somewhere. Let this experience enrich your lives for years to come.”

Over the past four years, nearly 70 students have the completed the SURF program, many whom have graduated and gone on to graduate school and careers in the science field. Currently, there are five former SURF participants making a splash at Scripps—this time as admitted graduate students.

Learn more about the research conducted by the 2014 SURF fellows here and view a photo gallery here.


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