SURF Program 2015: Student Profiles

The 2015 SURF fellows dedicated ten weeks in the summer to earth and ocean science research

Twenty-three ambitious college students from across the United States spent their time in labs and in the field conducting research in 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 science.

View a photo gallery for the 2015 Scripps SURF program here.

Learn about the exciting research conducted by the SURF program participants in 2015:

  • Jarvon Stout, a student studying marine biology at the University of the Virgin Islands, notes that the ocean was his first real passion. 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 Assistant Professor Brice Semmens, where he captured stills of videos in order to develop photographic marks of critically endangered groupers. He was using software in order to distinguish marks that make individual fish uniquely identifiable. The hope is that this tool will allow researchers to use "natural marks" to track the fate of individuals through time. One of the highlights of Stout’s experience was visiting Birch Aquarium at Scripps because it was his first time observing fish and sea creatures in an aquarium. In the future, Stout hopes to attend graduate school at Scripps and said that “the pinnacle” of his career will be studying and working with whales.
  • Karissa Vincent has been fascinated by rocks and playing music since a young age. Her dual interests led her to double major in geochemistry and music at Wheaton College. During the SURF program, Vincent worked in the laboratory of Scripps paleobiologist Richard Norris. Her job was to develop a new proxy for the past productivity of the ocean based upon the abundance of barite—a mineral that forms in sinking organic debris. Vincent worked with Holocene sediments, dating back to the last 11,700 years, from the Scripps Geological Collections to develop a relatively simple method of extracting barite from deep-sea mud. She compared her estimates of Holocene ocean productivity to satellite-derived productivity estimates for the modern ocean. The highlight of Vincent's experience was working under the mentorship of Norris, who was both an inspiration and supporter at the time when she was applying for graduate school. Vincent said that the community of people in the lab and in the SURF program, who were focused on science and oceanography, helped push her to a higher level and made her want to contribute to the scientific community even more. In the future, she plans to enter a PhD program, and Scripps is her number one choice. The SURF program “opened her eyes” and encouraged her to continue conducting research. Vincent is now considering identifying proxies for other chemicals in the ocean as a possible PhD thesis.
  • Kelsey Malloy is a student at University of Maryland-College Park, where she is majoring in atmospheric and oceanic science/remote sensing of environmental change. The SURF program gave Malloy the opportunity to explore her research interests in weather and climate. Using MATLAB, a computer modeling system, she wrote software to visualize the moisture variations in atmospheric rivers, and analyze the amount of moisture transported during a heavy rainfall case study in Northern California. Malloy compared model forecasts and dropsonde observations to determine that the low-level jet transporting moisture was not accurately represented in the model. In the lab of Associate Research Geophysicist Jennifer Haase, she simulated the type of GPS radio occultations that were recently made in a field campaign to determine that it would be an effective technique to confirm the location of the low-level jet in the model. Malloy said the highlight of her experience at Scripps was surpassing how much she thought she would accomplish. In the future, Malloy plans to enter a PhD program in atmospheric-sea interactions.
  • Diana Gutierrez Franco's interest in marine biology began in 11th grade when she went to the Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach, California, where she was first introduced to the field. Gutierrez is now majoring in aquatic biology at UC Santa Barbara. While participating in the SURF program, Gutierrez researched cell-to-cell chemical communication in phytoplankton with an emphasis on the growth hormone, indole-3-acetic-acid, in cultures of the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana, which are single-celled phytoplankton and primary producers in the ocean. Gutierrez used 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, to read her samples. Under the guidance of Research Scientist Maria Vernet, Gutierrez' research will help explain blooms of phytoplankton as a collective instead of individual cells. Phytoplankton is the base of the food web in the ocean. And, marine diatoms are responsible for 20% of the oxygen that we breathe. Gutierrez notes, "They have a huge impact on a huge world even though they are so small themselves." A better understanding of how phytoplankton grow will be useful for biofuels or any industry that grows algae. The SURF program gave Gutierrez the chance to confirm that she wants to obtain a PhD in graduate school and become a professor.
  • Morrie Lam is a student at Vassar, a small liberal arts school in New York, where he is studying biochemistry. The SURF program has challenged Lam to work independently and hone his research skills. During the program, he researched a novel amoeba-like organism isolated from an algal biofuels pond to determine what kinds of algae were its preferred prey. The highlight of Lam’s SURF experience was being surrounded by “intellectual fire power” in the joint lab of Brian Palenik and Bianca Brahamsha. Although Lam was originally pre-med, after delving into research, he is now considering graduate level studies and plans to obtain either a PhD or an MD.
  • Chicago native Jonathan Behrens, a student at University of Chicago, is majoring in chemistry. His interest in how science influences policy inspired him to apply to the SURF program. He was placed in the lab of Associate Professor Lihini Aluwihare, where he sought to examine the hypothesis that essential fatty acids in zooplankton should reflect their diet. More specifically, he investigated whether zooplankton fatty acid composition could be used to distinguish contributions from different types of food webs. Behrens accomplished this by using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to analyze the fatty acid composition of suspended particulate organic matter and zooplankton in samples collected from the coastal California Current Ecosystem LTER domain (near 9 mile bank). Behrens said the highlight of his experience was collecting samples of ocean water on the Scripps Pier. In the immediate future he will present his summer research at the 2015 American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. He plans to continue to do research and either attend graduate school or use his background in science to work in policy and inform decisions.
  • As a high school student, UC Berkley senior Jorge Rivera was involved with Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI), an outreach program dedicated to providing hands-on ocean science education to underserviced youth. His participation with ODI along with observational field research conducted as a high school student in Mexico led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in marine science. The SURF program gave Rivera his first opportunity to work in a lab setting where he could control variables. Much of his daily tasks involved the animal care of 40-50 crabs. While working in the lab of Scripps Assistant Professor and marine biologist Jennifer Taylor, Rivera studied the kinematics of vertical climbing in semi-terrestrial crabs. Walking pattern (gait), speed, and body posture, all measured by Rivera, differed from horizontal crawling, and revealed some general adaptations that have likely enabled crabs to invade arboreal habitats. Ultimately, Rivera was instrumental in the development and troubleshooting of the experimental design. He has loved learning about biomechanics and how form fits function from his “brilliant” principle investigator. Receiving a compliment from Taylor after showing that he knew the crab’s food tastes was a SURF highlight for Rivera. Rivera’s love for learning and great interpersonal skills have inspired him to become a professor.
  • Virgin Islands native Richard Laplace has been interested in marine biology from a very young age due to his family’s unique ability to swim (70-80% of the people born and raised in the Caribbean do not know how to swim). As a SURF program participant in the lab of Scripps Associate Professor Stuart Sandin, Laplace analyzed photomosaics of juvenile corals at the Palmyra Atoll. These photomosaics consist of thousands of pictures taken 1-2 meters from the surface. Photos are stitched together using Photoshop. There has been no human interaction with this coral reef, so Sandin’s lab has been interested in learning as much as they can about the pristine corals. The program has provided Laplace the opportunity to study marine biology outside of books. Learning how to use Photoshop was a SURF highlight for Laplace, who also noted that he liked the access to activities and the speed of the Internet in San Diego. In the future, Laplace plans on attending graduate school and obtaining a PhD.
  • Haley Moss is a student at Brown University, where she is majoring in computational and molecular biology. Moss became interested in this field after looking at a picture of an "insanely interesting looking DNA molecule" which led her to talk to the department head. During the SURF program, Moss was placed in the lab of Associate Professor Andrew Allen, a joint faculty member between the Integrative Oceanography Division at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Microbial and Environmental Genomics Department at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). Moss is familiar with this lab as it is her third year at the JCVI. Her previous work involved growing different strains and species in an effort to understand vitamin and micronutrient requirements. While in the SURF program, Moss's lab work consisted of experiments designed to explore the nature of marine phytoplankton and bacteria interactions. Moss further contributed to optimizing a particular strain of bacteria for genetic manipulation, determining, for example, resistance to antibiotics and whether or not the bacteria can provide vitamins and nutrients to phytoplankton. She used a fluorometer to measure how well the phytoplankton were growing, as well as a spectrofluorometer to measure the density of bacteria. In the future, Moss plans on obtaining her master's degree in public health and attending medical school.
  • Noah Hamlish’s interest in marine science began at a young age after visiting an aquarium in Chicago, where he enjoyed the dark, calm, and quiet nature of the tanks. This interest became academic as he became intent on knowing how fish operate. Once in college, he became passionate about the chemistry aspect of fish. Hamlish is a student at Wesleyan University, where he is double majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry. While participating in the SURF program at Scripps, Hamlish worked in the lab of Scripps Associate Research Scientist and Lecturer Dimitri Deheyn. Here, he researched a protein found in the secreted mucus of a marine worm, Chaetopterus, which may be involved in bioluminescence and fluorescence. Since little is known about this protein in the worm, Hamlish researched tools to explore the protein’s biochemical activity and learn about its potential relationship to light production. Applying classroom knowledge to his research was a SURF highlight for Hamlish. He was excited to see the graph of the protein activity curve, a theory that he had understood from books, physically produced in the Scripps lab.
  • When considering what to study at college, Ohio native Courtney Swink put two of her favorite activities together: the beach and science. Swink is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology from University of South Carolina (USC). While working in the lab of Scripps Professor and marine microbiologist Brian Palenik for the SURF program, Swink grew marine microalgae in different types of waste waters, referred to as raffinate, and used a fluorometer to measure the growth of the algae. The overall purpose was to see if raffinate could provide the nutrients to sustainably grow marine microalgae for biofuel production. Although Swink has prior research experience working in a marine sediment lab at USC, she was particularly excited to work in Palenik’s lab because she noted that there aren’t many research opportunities on algae biofuels on the east coast. In the future, Swink plans on attending graduate school and she is considering working as a professor or for NOAA.
  • Helena McMonagle is a fourth-year student at Wellesley College with an interest in marine biology as it relates to people. She notes, “We are not separate from the environment.” Although she started out considering various fields within medicine, she switched to biological sciences after discovering environmental biology. McMonagle’s interest in how people impact oceans made her a perfect fit to work in the lab of Scripps research oceanographer Tony Koslow. As a SURF program participant, McMonagle used the long-term CalCOFI time series to determine how the biodiversity in fish communities has changed and if these changes were related to climate change. McMonagle performed statistical work with computer programs such as Excel, SPSS, and primer7 to examine the fish’s abundance, community structure, and diversity. Working with Koslow was a SURF highlight for McMonagle, as she was already familiar with his research. She greatly admired Koslow’s mentorship during the program. Currently, McMonagle knows she would like to pursue research and teaching, but she would like more experiences in marine biology before committing to one subject area. In the future, she plans on having a career at the intersection of science and policy.
  • 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. Petsche had such a great experience with the SURF program last summer that she applied for a second time. She noted that she is grateful Scripps Associate Professor Jennifer Smith and UC San Diego alumnus and current Scripps Staff Research Associate Clinton Edwards have “put up with her” for the past two summers. This year, Pestche studied the tropical coral Pocillopora from the Palmyra Atoll in the central Pacific. She analyzed the frequency of coral mortality, determined what factors influenced mortality, and determined the fate of the corals after they died. Petsche has "lucked out" because she has yet to find a topic that she has studied and not liked. She admits that her long-term goals rotate frequently, but currently she hopes to either lead a lab or start a non-profit organization after graduate school.
  • Puerto Rican native Eden Santiago Gomez is a student at the University of South Florida, where she is majoring in marine biology and environmental science and policy. After taking an ecology class in college, Gomez realized that she wanted to investigate real life problems and became an environmentalist. During the SURF program, Gomez was thrilled to research salt marsh ecology with graduate student Akana Noto in the lab of Jonathan Shurin, professor of the Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution Section at UC San Diego. Here, she studied the abundance of parasites and insects in salt marsh plants across California. Gomez measured and identified insects using a dissecting microscope and dichotomous key, which is a tool to identify insect families. This research will benefit our knowledge of salt marsh food webs, an area that is not well understood. In the future, Gomez plans on continuing research with wetlands and attending graduate school. She hopes to eventually implement her research in agricultural practices and animal raising practices.
  • Arina Favilla is majoring in biomedical engineering at the University of Miami. While in the SURF program, she was placed in the Marine Bioacoustics Lab of Scripps Assistant Researcher and bioacoustician Ana Sirovic. Sirovic’s background in biology and engineering made her lab the perfect match for Favilla, who is particularly interested in how technology can be used to further research in marine science. In the lab, Favilla analyzed acoustic whale calls to learn about the spatial variability in blue whale populations. Currently, blue whales in the northeastern Pacific are assumed to belong to a single population. However, Favilla found a variation in blue whale calls from the Gulf of Alaska when compared to those in the Southern California Bight. This finding might suggest there is finer scale structure in this population that is yet to be understood. One of Favilla’s trip highlights was observing the dramatic difference between what you see in the waters off Miami and San Diego. For example, in Miami there are no kelp forests. In the future, Favilla plans to go into the research field.
  • Michelle Pombrol is a student at Brown University, where she is majoring in biology. She became interested in the lab of Scripps Professor and marine biologist Doug Bartlett because of the unique interplay between microbiology, geology, and physics in his research. While in the SURF program, Pombrol investigated microbial community structures within the Kermadec and Mariana trenches. These trenches both extend down to depths greater than 10,000 meters and harbor particularly unique ecosystems because of the combination of high pressure with low temperature. These trenches are largely unexplored because of their depth. Pombrol sought to uncover which microorganisms live in this part of the deep sea to better understand how life works in this environment.
  • Bethany Fowler, a student majoring in math at Rice University, has always found the answers and results she gets from math to be satisfying. Her interest in applications of math in marine biology led her to apply to the SURF program, where she was placed in the lab of Scripps Assistant Professor Brice Semmens. Here, she monitored the recovery of Nassau Groupers by listening to acoustics. The reproductive practices of Nassau Groupers made them vulnerable since they come together to reproduce. As a result, they were highly overfished. There is now a ban on fishing when these groupers spawn. Fowler listened to passive audio data for sounds associated with spawning behavior. She learned to identify different calls, for example, between the Yellow Fin and Nassau Grouper. Fowler said the highlights of her experience at Scripps was surfing next to a pod of dolphins and attending a seminar on green algae, a topic that she had been researching prior to the SURF program. After she graduates, Fowler plans on obtaining more research experience.
  • Anna Simpson decided to major in earth sciences with a concentration in oceanography at the University of New Hampshire because it combined her interests of math, physics, and the outdoors. Simpson’s interest in physical oceanography led her to apply to the SURF program, where she was placed in the lab of Scripps Professor Sarah Gille. Here, Simpson sought to determine whether a fixed ratio exists between changes in nitrate and changes in oxygen. This ratio has been characterized for some parts of the world but not for the Southern Ocean. If a fixed ratio can be defined, the number can be used in the biogeochemical component of the Southern Ocean State Estimate model. Simpson used profiling float data and MATLAB, a computer modeling system, for analysis to study the physical and biogeochemical processes occurring in the Southern Ocean. In the future, Simpson plans on attending graduate school and being involved in education. “It is important to encourage and inspire the younger generation of scientists,” said Simpson.
  • Taiwan native Christy Liang is a student at UC San Diego, where she is majoring in earth science. Liang credits her middle school teacher who spoke about the Kyoto Protocol for sparking her interest in climate science. She was excited to work in the lab of Scripps Professor Jeffrey Severinghaus during the SURF program. Here, she studied neon isotope fractionation in air drawn from the snowpack on top of polar ice sheets, with the ultimate goal of using neon isotopes to reconstruct past atmospheric concentrations of oxygen using air bubbles trapped in ancient ice. The oxygen concentration in the atmosphere tells us about past changes in the amount of biomass contained in the biosphere, which is useful for understanding how the biosphere will respond to future warming. Liang used a mass spectrometer to measure the isotopic ratio of neon-22 to neon-20. Liang said that she learned a lot about paleoclimate during her SURF experience. One of the highlights of Liang’s experience was attending a potluck, where everyone from different labs and programs came together. In the future, she plans to focus on modern climate change, conducting research or working for a company or the government.
  • Rachel Torres excelled at math in high school and loves how physics explains everything in the world through math. This led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in physics from North Park University in Chicago. Here at Scripps, Torres worked in the lab of Scripps Professor Falk Feddersen with a nearshore physical oceanography numerical model of the coast in Central California. The numerical model determined how warm waters propagate and how this effects circulation. This numerical analysis was compared to observational data. One of Torres’s SURF highlights was being around like-minded students who are also just beginning in the field—people who will eventually be her future colleagues. In the future, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in engineering.
  • Brendon Mendenhall is a senior at UC San Diego, where he is majoring in earth science. He enjoys the fieldwork that is involved and believes that there is never a dull moment in this scientific field. Mendenhall’s interest in reconstructing the past by looking at climate change and records of sediment made him excited to work in the lab of Scripps Professor Neal Driscoll during the SURF program. Here, he analyzed the grain distribution and seismic profiles of arctic sediment cores and identified mount melt water pulses. Mendenhall worked with a laser diffraction grain size analyzer to measure the angle of defraction in mud samples. This equipment allowed Mendenhall to calculate grain size in a given solution. The overall purpose of his research was to look at what was happening in the northern hemisphere during the last deglaciation. After graduate school, he plans to work in the industry for a few years before switching to academia and possibly becoming a professor.
  • Jackson Powell’s aptitude for science and interest in marine creatures led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology from California State University, Los Angeles, where he is set to graduate this winter. While in the SURF program, Powell worked 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 Kirk Sato. Powell had the unique opportunity to go on two Scripps research cruises to collect sea urchins. He compared the color and texture characteristics of gonads between two species. One of these species is fished and used in sushi and the other, while in the same genus, is not currently fished. Powell compared the characteristics using a color analyzer that measured how light, red, and yellow the samples were. A texture analyzer was also used to measure the amount of force taken to compress an object. The purpose of this research is to see if the species in the same genus can be a potential fishery. Powell was particularly excited about this research because it looked into how ecology affects food product characteristics. One of the highlights of Powell’s SURF experience was physically analyzing the data after collecting the gonads, taking their color measurements, and putting them in the statistical program. In the future, Powell plans to enter a PhD program so he can contribute his own intellectual property to the scientific field.
  • Joe Rodriguez, a student at San Diego State University, is majoring in biology. Rodriguez’s interest in biology stems from his curiosity of how life works at a cellular level. His passion for science along with his goal to gain hands-on experience in the lab has led him to apply to the SURF program where he worked in the lab of Paul Jensen, a research microbiologist at Scripps. In the lab, Rodriguez studied the production of antibiotics and other small molecules by a group of marine bacteria called the genus Salinispora. His goal was to better understand the environmental cues that trigger the production of these compounds and how they can be better exploited for drug discovery. Here, he learned new lab processes and techniques, such as high-pressure liquid chromatography and bioassays to detect small molecule production. Rodriguez appreciates the shift toward looking at the environment for antibiotic discovery instead of synthetically creating drugs.

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