SURF Program 2014: Student Profiles

The 2014 SURF fellows excelled in a wide range of earth and ocean science research

This summer, twenty 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 Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

SURF is a ten-week summer research experience for undergraduates (REU) that engages students in cutting-edge scientific research alongside a scientist mentor, helping them prepare for graduate school and careers in marine and earth science.

Read a feature story about the 2014 SURF Program here and view a photo gallery here.

Check out the exciting research conducted by the SURF program participants in 2014:

  • Carlos Alva, a fourth year student at San Diego State University, is majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry. His passion for science led him to apply to the SURF program, and he was placed in the lab of Scripps Associate Professor Lihini Aluwihare, under the guidance of Scripps research associate Miles Borgen. Alva’s lab work consisted of looking for halogenated organic compounds, or HOCs, in squid. HOCs are typically contaminates of anthropogenic origin, but several naturally produced HOCs have been described and are the subject of research at the Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health, which includes Aluwihare. Alva was excited to learn new lab processes and techniques, such as gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. Knowing these techniques will help Alva tremendously as he maps out his future plans for a career in analytical chemistry.
  • Hannah Asefaw is a senior at Colombia University, where she is majoring in earth science. She has always loved the outdoors and enjoys the opportunity to conduct research outside of the textbook and in the field. This made her a perfect match to work in the lab of Lisa Tauxe, distinguished professor of geophysics at Scripps. Here, Asefeaw researched paleomagnetism, and looked at the magnetic properties in rocks collected from the North Shore Volcanics region of Lake Superior in Minnesota. These rock samples are from the Neoproterozoic Era, a billion years ago. By looking at the paleointensity of these rocks, researchers can determine the intensity of ancient magnetic fields. One of Asefaw’s favorite parts of her SURF experience was collecting field samples alongside Tauxe at the Ramona Complex in California. Asefaw plans to continue studying earth science in graduate school where she hopes to obtain a Ph.D.
  • Raquel Bryant’s interest in STEM and environmental advocacy led her to double major in geology and biology at Brown University, where she is now entering her senior year. Bryant recently completed an internship studying microfossils at the Smithsonian, so it makes sense that during the SURF program, she was placed in the lab of Scripps paleobiologist Richard Norris and worked under Scripps graduate student Elizabeth Sibert. In the lab, Bryant examined ichthyoliths, tiny fossil fish teeth and shark scales preserved in marine fossil records. These particular ichthyoliths, collected from deep-sea sediment cores in the Atlantic Ocean, came from the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, an interval of intense global change 56 million years ago. Examined closely under a microscope, these fossil records can help scientists understand environmental impacts on pelagic fish communities, as well as fish evolution through time. Bryant said she had fun examining the teeny tiny fish teeth in the lab and adding records to this little studied subject (up until this point, the only samples studied in depth were taken from the Pacific Ocean). She plans to enter a Ph.D. program in the fall, although she’s not sure where just yet.
  • Rosario Flores has been interested in animals and ecology for as long as she can remember. This led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology from University of New Mexico (UNM), where she is set to graduate this spring. At UNM, Flores has been conducting coyote research along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. Using isotopic analysis, Flores examines collected scat samples to determine anthropogenic impacts on the feeding habits of coyotes. During the SURF program, Flores was thrilled to research and work with sea turtles with graduate student Cali Turner Tomaszewicz in the lab of Carolyn Kurle, assistant professor of the Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution Section at UC San Diego. In the lab, Flores looked at the skeletochronology of humerus bones of stranded green sea turtles and loggerhead turtles from Baja California, Mexico. Through this technique, the humerus bone allows researchers to age turtles, which can help address the age range of at-risk turtles in the Baja area. This research provides crucial evidence for scientists, who work in partnership with NOAA to implement changes that protect the declining sea turtle population. Flores enjoyed conducting fieldwork in the San Diego Bay, where she helped catch (and release) green sea turtles, which weigh upwards of 350 pounds. This research helps NOAA scientists monitor the health of the San Diego green sea turtle population, and Flores felt honored to assist in any way possible. “I loved working with the green turtles! One of the turtles that we caught was 60 years old! This was an incredible in-he-field experience,” said Flores, who hopes to continue working with animals—both furry and marine—in the future.
  • Natalia Gutierrez is a senior at UCLA, where she’s majoring in Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics (MIMG). She was excited to work in the lab of Scripps professor and marine microbiologist Brian Palenik during the SURF program. Here, she researched marine cyanobacterial production of polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), compounds that may be used in the future production of biodegradable plastics. Plastic can take anywhere from thousands to hundreds of thousands of years to degrade in the environment, but new research shows that promising new plastics based on compounds similar to PHB can degrade within months. In the future, Natalia plans to attend grad school where she will continue studying microbiology and genetics.
  • Isabel Herrera is passionate about protecting the environment. As a high school student in San Diego, Herrera volunteered with Ocean Discovery Institute, an organization dedicated to providing hands-on ocean science education to students of all ages. Herrera’s love for nature and the ocean led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, where she is now a senior, and has been conducting wetlands research in Baja, Mexico. While working in Scripps associate researcher Dimitri Deheyn’s lab for the SURF program, Herrera studied the Spanish shawl (Flabellina) nudibranch, a species of sea slug mollusc that contains a reflecting protein normally found in cephalopods. Herrera looked at the brightly colored nudibranchs under a microscope, and tested their DNA sequence using polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a molecular technology that makes copies of a specific DNA sequence. This lab experience only further cemented Herrera’s determination to protect the ocean’s unique creatures, some which have yet to be discovered. Herrera plans to work in the field of conservation after graduating, and hopes to communicate important environmental issues with the public.
  • Matt Hurley, a student now entering his junior year at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has always been interested in astronomy.  Although he started out as a biochemistry major, he later switched to astrophysics because it’s the scientific field he’s most passionate about. The SURF program gave Hurley the opportunity to expand his research interests and study physical oceanography under Scripps Professor Sarah Gille. Using MATLAB, a computer modeling system, Hurley studied the physical oceanography of a region in the Southern Ocean known as the Drake Passage. His goal was to look at the physics of the region, to see how the ocean is mixing and stratified, and to find out how heat, salinity, and density are affecting algal blooms. Hurley enjoyed making friends with both students and professors during his time with the SURF program, and even arranged a group rock-climbing trip to Joshua Tree. “You can do a research experience anywhere, but the people at Scripps are awesome, and it’s such a unique place,” he said. After he graduates, Hurley plans to enter a Ph.D. program in geophysics, and Scripps is his number one choice.
  • Harvard senior Emily Kraemer has two major passions: chemistry and sociology. She couldn’t choose between the two, so she decided to major in both, and is now in the process of completing her undergraduate thesis, which merges the two fields through water quality analysis and observational ethnography fieldwork conducted on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. While in the SURF program, Kraemer worked in the atmospheric aerosols lab of Scripps Professor Lynn Russell. While in the lab, Kraemer analyzed the density and composition of air samples taken from the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla, Calif., to find out how clouds interact with the climate. She processed data using an aerosol mass spectrometer, which measures the chemical composition of particulates. Learning how to use high-tech lab equipment was a SURF highlight for Kraemer, who also noted that she had a great time meeting new people and participating in outdoor activities such as surfing and snorkeling. She also appreciated the GRE prep course and NSF grant composure classes offered through SURF, which gave her confidence to possibly apply to grad school one day.
  • Franco Migliolo is a student at Florida Gulf Coast University, set to graduate this December with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. His scientific ambition led him to apply for a summer research opportunity through the SURF program, and he was placed in the lab of Scripps Associate Researcher Dimitri Deheyn. Under Deheyn’s guidance, Migliolo studied bioluminescent parchment tube worms, testing their mucus for the presence of ferritin, a regulatory protein possibly affecting light production. Using a luminometer, which measures relative light units, Migliolo treated mucus with different compounds acting on the ferritin. He also learned how to use a spectrophotometer, a piece of lab equipment that measures the amount and color (spectrum) of light absorbed by a solution that contains specific extracts and proteins. This equipment also helped Migliolo measure whether the absorbed light was re-emitted as fluorescence. Migliolo also used specific electrodes to measure pH and redox potential characteristic of ferritin. The overall purpose of this research is to find a correlation between ferritin and light production in the bioluminescent worm. Migliolo thoroughly enjoyed his time in the lab, so much so that he plans to apply to the Ph.D. program at Scripps.
  • Deanna Moquin is a student at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she is majoring in biology. During the SURF program, Moquin worked in Scripps Professor and marine biologist Greg Rouse’s lab, which studies the evolutionary relationships of marine animals, including many invertebrates but also some fish such as the majestic seadragon. In the lab, Moquin studied the bioacoustics of both weedy and leafy seadragons at Birch Aquarium at Scripps. Other syngnathid fish such as seahorses and pipefish make noises when feeding, courting, and when stressed, but until this project, seadragons had not been documented making such noises. Moquin recorded the seadragons using a hydrophone and a camera, later importing the sound files for analysis in the lab, where she studied the peak frequency and duration of noise emitted by the seadragons. She was excited to discover that seadragons, much like syngnathids, do indeed make noises to communicate. In the future, Moquin is interested in possibly studying genetics or neuroscience in graduate school, although she is still weighing her options.
  • Michael Olheiser is a student at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota, where he is double majoring in physics and mathematics—subjects he has always excelled in. During the SURF program, Olheiser worked in the lab of Joel Norris, Scripps professor of atmospheric and climate science. Using the advanced programming software MATLAB, a computer modeling system, Olheiser looked at global climate models and how clouds respond to CO2 warming. Olheiser said he was excited to use the computer programs in the lab, and that he learned a lot during his SURF experience. In the future, he plans to attend grad school where he will study applied math, physics, and earth science.
  • Dayo Osuntokun has always possessed a deep interest in what makes the world work, and enjoys studying Earth’s “incredibly fascinating, complicated systems.” This led Osuntokun to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology from Columbia University, where she is now entering her senior year. While in the SURF program, she researched characteristics of microbial communities within the sediments, seawater, and animals of deep-ocean trenches in the lab of Scripps Professor and marine biologist Doug Bartlett. By studying the genomic characteristics of extremophilic bacteria (bacteria that are able to survive extremely high pressures and low temperatures at the bottom of the ocean), researchers hope to better understand how life works in the deep sea. In the lab, Osuntokun analyzed microbial samples collected from the Kermadec Trench near New Zealand, an underwater region that extends down as deep as 10 kilometers deep (six miles below the surface of the ocean). Scientists believe there are many microbes undiscovered at the bottom of the ocean—microbes which could lead to new antibiotics and medicines. After graduating, Osuntokun plans to work in a research lab, and then she will consider applying to grad school.
  • Cheryl Petsche grew up in the Midwest, but a childhood trip to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago gave her an up-close look at some dolphins. This experience sparked her interest in marine biology—a field she is now studying at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). As a SURF program participant, Petsche studied corals in the lab of Scripps Associate Professor Jennifer Smith, under the guidance of UC San Diego alumnus and current Scripps Staff Research Associate Clinton Edwards. Petsche analyzed three different species of corals (encrusting, massive, and branching) based on detailed photographs taken at the Palmyra Atoll in 2009 and 2012. She studied the images for signs of coral aggression between the three species (corals can attack each other), and after comparing old and new images of the same corals, she was able to determine which corals were “winning” or “losing” the battle. Petsche said this project gave her an even deeper appreciation for corals, and during a recent trip to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, she realized that she was the only person more interested in looking at the corals in the display tanks rather than the fish or other sea creatures. “This program makes me want to study corals even more in the future,” said Petsche. “They are simply fascinating.”
  • Virgin Islands native Zola Roper credits her grandmother for sparking her interest in the ocean at a young age. Roper has been swimming, snorkeling, and whale watching as long as she can remember. One of her favorite memories is when she swam with sea turtles out in the open water. Roper’s passion for marine life has carried on into adulthood, as she’s now entering her junior year as a marine biology major at the University of the Virgin Islands. While in the SURF program, Roper analyzed corals in the lab of Scripps associate researcher Stuart Sandin, under the guidance of graduate student Marlene Brito. The corals she analyzed were from from Curaçao, an island in the southern Caribbean Sea, just above Venezuela. By closely examining quadrants of highly detailed digital photographs, Roper could determine many aspects of the corals health and growth rate. Roper is still deciding what she wants to do after graduating, but she thinks she will work in an aquarium or be involved in some sort of ocean outreach program. One of Roper’s trip highlights was shadowing an employee at Birch Aquarium for a day—her dream job!
  • Allan “A.J.” Somers is entering his senior year at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, where he has already earned his associate’s degree in general science and is now finishing his bachelor’s degree in life science. Somers, a member of the Ketchikan Indian Corporation of Alaska, became interested in studying science after one of his close friends was diagnosed with HIV. During the SURF program, Somers worked in the lab of research microbiologist Paul Jensen at the Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health. Under the guidance of graduate student Julia Busch, Somers’ lab work consisted of culturing marine bacteria and testing to see if they produced toxic compounds that have been observed accumulating in the marine food chain. While these compounds are normally of anthropogenic origin, Somers’ research tested the hypothesis they may also be produced by microbes that live in association with marine plants and invertebrates. “This experience has really opened my eyes to natural products in the biotech industry,” said Somers, who plans to get his Ph.D. in health science. He hopes to one day work in the biomedicine field so he can help find better treatments for people with HIV and cancer.
  • Kieu Tran is a student at Unity College in Maine, where she is majoring in marine biology and has been researching coastal habitats and human disturbances. While in the SURF program, Tran was placed in the lab of Lisa Levin, professor and director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps, and worked under the guidance of Scripps graduate student Kirk Sato. While in the lab, Tran looked at how sea urchins respond to low-level oxygen in the Southern California Bight based on trawl data. Tran said the highlight of her experience was spending six days aboard the R/V New Horizon on a research cruise called the Summer Krill Expedition, where a number of scientists and graduate students investigated the co-location of large baleen whales and krill at the Coronado Escarpment, also known as 9 Mile Bank. Tran said she felt “lucky” to experience life as a seagoing scientist, and looks forward to more adventures in the future when she attends graduate school for marine biology.
  • Ethiopian native Amanuel Weldemariam is now entering his senior year at UC San Diego, where he is majoring in engineering. He applied to the SURF program so he could participate in a unique research opportunity over the summer. Here at Scripps, Weldemariam worked in the lab of Scripps Assistant Professor and marine biologist Jennifer Taylor. While in the lab, he researched the effects of ocean acidification on the exoskeleton of a crab species. Weldemariam read scientific studies on crustaceans and then tested the effects of ocean acidification on the mechanical properties of the exoskeleton using nanoindentation. This research will help scientists determine the ways in which crustacean species are adapting to the damaging effects of climate change. Weldemariam said he had fun working in the lab and learning something new. In the future, he plans to pursue a master’s degree in engineering.
  • Leila Whitener is a senior at Northwest Indian College (NWIC), where she is majoring in native environmental science. As a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe in Olympia, Washington, Whitener was drawn to the program at NWIC because it ties Native American culture into science. While participating in the SURF program, Whitener studied the chemical and biological cycling of trace metals in marine systems in the lab of Scripps Professor and geoscientist Katherine Barbeau. Whitener analyzed seawater samples using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and looked at concentrations of heme, an iron compound, in algal cells and marine detritus (iron is important as a limiting micronutrient for oceanic microplankton). Whitener grew cultures, crushed cells, and extracted heme from the samples for analysis. Learning about HPLC was exciting for Whitener, as she will likely use this technique in future studies. After graduating from NWIC, Whitener plans to work in resource management for her tribe back home in Olympia.
  • Melaina Wright’s interest in marine biology began at the age of 13, when she swam with sharks at the Camden Aquarium in New Jersey. After looking into one of the shark’s eyes, she was captivated and knew she wanted to learn more about marine ecosystems. Wright is now entering her senior year at Wellesley College, where she is majoring in biology and minoring in environmental studies. While participating in the SURF program at Scripps, Wright worked on determining the sampling requirements for long-term ecological monitoring of fish communities. Under the guidance of then CalCOFI Director and research oceanographer Tony Koslow, Wright studied baby planktonic fish samples and determined trends in oxygen content and ocean acidification. One of her favorite moments in the program was when she and Tony went snorkeling together through a giant mass of anchovies right next to the Scripps Pier. “It was a once in a lifetime experience!” she said. With hopes to one day get her Ph.D. and work in fisheries management, Wright found her experience with SURF and CalCOFI extremely beneficial.
  • Aissa Yazzie, a member of the Navajo Indian tribe from Arizona, just graduated from Northwest Indian College (NWIC) with a bachelor’s degree in native environmental science. Yazzie “fell in love” with college during her time at NWIC and discovered that she wants to pursue a career in science. In the SURF program, she was placed in the lab of Lisa Levin, professor and director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps, and worked under Scripps graduate student Natalya Gallo. Yazzie’s work in the lab consisted of looking at stable isotopes of white fish muscles in benthic communities. One of the highlights of Yazzie’s experience was getting to participate in a six-day research cruise aboard the 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. In the future, she plans to attend graduate school, and hopes to someday work for a tribe or non-profit organization doing something that helps the environment.

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