SURF Program 2019: Student Profiles

This summer a group of bright, ambitious, and talented college students from across the country were selected to come to Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego to be a part of the Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF program). SURF is a ten-week fellowship program where select undergraduates have the opportunity to conduct innovative research alongside a scientist mentor while gaining important insight into graduate school and future careers in science.

View photos from the 2019 SURF Symposium here.

Learn about the 2019 SURF participants and the exciting research they conducted this summer:


Carmen Castillo is a junior at UC Riverside majoring in biochemistry. This past summer, she worked in Lihini Aluwihare’s lab using liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry on metabolites present in cells and the surrounding seawater under different ecosystem conditions. Castillo’s research will be used for understanding the response factor of metabolites on liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. Her favorite part of SURF was learning about the different research opportunities at Scripps and the multidisciplinary environment. She will continue research in the biomedical field and pursue a PhD.


Race Cleveland is a senior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. majoring in environmental studies and minoring in both biology and geology. His interests are climate policy, climate science, paleoclimates, and vertebrate paleobiology. As a SURF student, Cleveland worked in Professor Richard Norris’ lab with a global collection of marine ichthyoliths—fish microfossils in the form of teeth or denticles—taken from the Deep Sea Drilling Project. By gathering information about ichytholith abundance, sedimentation rate, sediment sample density, and sediment sample age, Cleveland created a proxy for fish productivity in the world’s oceans through the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). The PETM was a period of rapid carbon output and temperature rise around 50 million years ago; Cleveland’s data saw a decline in fish productivity at the end of the PETM. This information can be used as an analog for future climate change which can better prepare society for the inherent changes of a warming planet. After graduating, Cleveland plans to work in a museum and conduct research that both engages the general public and communicates the consequences of climate change.


Youssef Doss is a senior at Yale University pursuing a bachelor's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. He developed a love for the ocean and its inhabitants during his regular visits to Egypt and the Red Sea with his family throughout the years. This past summer, he worked closely with graduate student Kayla Blincow in the Semmens Lab to study the critically endangered giant sea bass (Stereolepis gigas). He spent his time between expeditions catching, tagging, and releasing giant sea bass to gather tracking data in addition to analyzing stable isotope ratios of numerous creatures to better understand the nature of their environments. Overall, Doss said this research helped paint a more complete picture of a giant sea bass’ life history and inspire targeted conservation efforts. Doss will use the skills acquired from the SURF program to expand this research for his senior thesis at his home institution.


Ezra El-Aton is a senior at UC Santa Cruz majoring in computer science and business management. This past summer, El-Aton analyzed water properties from the Sermilik Fjord of Greenland under the mentorship of Bobby Sanchez and Margret Lindeman in Professor Fiamma Straneo’s lab. The primary goal of this project was to find a long-term warming trend from yearly temperatures at different points along the fjord to better understand the current melting rate of Greenland’s ice sheets. The SURF program gave El-Aton the opportunity to learn about this unique scientific field and inspired them to pursue a career where they can merge their passion for programming with climate science.


Doreen Leavitt is a sophomore at the University of Alaska Southeast pursuing a bachelor's degree in marine biology. Her interest focuses on studying the behavior of marine mammals and their interactions with one another and their ever-changing environment. This past summer, Leavitt worked in the Whale Acoustic Lab studying beluga whales in the Canadian Arctic. This work was a continuation of her high school project where she studied beluga whistles and learned about their different whistle types (dialects) within the Canadian Arctic and the Alaskan Arctic. In the future, Leavitt plans to pursue a PhD in marine biology to study marine mammal acoustics. 


Ketzel Levens is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in atmospheric and oceanic sciences. Growing up on Lake Superior’s shores inspired Levens to work with Anna Wilson and Julie Kalansky in the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E). With the help of Wilson and Kalansky, Levens designed research that diagnosed the atmospheric river characteristics of the Feb. 22-25 continental cyclone event and compared them to the atmospheric river event that occurred this year in Southern California from Feb. 13-15. The cyclone presented many similar structures—such as a low-level jet along the cold front—which enhanced low-level water vapor transport and a deep layer of saturation. Levens also spent one week in the field helping with instrument calibration and troubleshooting CW3E's network of meteorological stations in the Russian River Basin of Northern California. She will continue this work as a part of her senior thesis at Madison where she hopes to understand how different precipitation modes and jet stream structures within the cyclone were directly or indirectly affected by the atmospheric river.


Itzel Lizama Chamu is a senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago majoring in biological sciences. Her studies focus on bacteria, fungi and their ecological roles, mass spectrometry, and natural product research. This past summer, she worked in Paul Jensen’s lab studying the production of specialized metabolites by the marine bacterium Salinispora pacifica, and her work focused on: comparing the type-1 polyketide synthases (T1PKS)/non-ribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPS) biosynthetic gene clusters (BGC’S) (which encode for secondary metabolite production) of 23 S. pacifica strains, and determining the day at which potential specialized metabolites are produced by a S. pacifica strain at high quantities. The goal of the project was to help identify a specialized metabolite that is only produced by S. pacifica species that can be used as a chemotaxonomic marker and predict specialized metabolite products from BGC’s. By predicting products of BGC’s, the results can enhance natural product discovery by allowing scientists to take a targeted approach in finding and isolating natural products that affect human health. The SURF program has helped Chamu prepare for graduate school and has inspired her to dive further into scientific research and work towards protecting ecosystems. She plans to pursue a PhD degree within the field of microbiology.


Christopher McDonald is a senior at the University of the Virgin Islands majoring in biology and minoring in communications. His interests range from microbiology to radio production. During the SURF program, McDonald worked on the project “The Effects of Different Antibiotics on Pseudo-nitzschia Diatoms and their Microbial Communities” at the J. Craig Venter Institute and Scripps Oceanography. To give some background on McDonald’s project: Pseudo-nitzschia diatoms are photosynthetic unicellular algae found in marine habits. This genus produces a toxin known as domoic acid (DA) which can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning. Numerous and diverse bacteria surround Pseudo-nitzschia diatoms, potentially representing a symbiotic relationship. For this project, antibiotics were tested in order to determine whether or not they could remove bacteria from cultures of three species of Pseudi-nitzschia without impairing diatom growth. It was found that most antibiotic treatments resulted in breakthrough bacterial growth within several days of treatment. One of McDonald’s experiments found that an antibiotic treatment could eliminate bacteria as well as inhibit (either directly or indirectly) diatom growth. Interning at SURF inspired Christopher to pursue his goal of becoming a researcher and creating a non-profit research institute on St. Thomas, U.S.Virgin Islands.


Gabrielle Meza is a senior at UC Berkeley pursuing a bachelor's degree in genetic and plant biology. Born and raised in San Diego, she grew up going to the beach which sparked a passion in marine biology and environmental sustainability. During the SURF Program, she worked in the lab of Brian Palenik studying the relative abundance of different clades of Synececcoccus—a type of cyanobacteria—in the San Diego Bay and off Scripps Pier. Out in the field, Meza went on a cruise throughout San Diego Bay to collect water samples to confirm the presence of a unique clade originally thought to exist only in the open ocean. Ultimately, Meza aspires to pursue graduate school for a PhD.


Moe Mijjum is a senior at UC Berkeley majoring in planetary science. Her interests include planetary magnetism, geochemistry, reading, and true crime. This summer she worked closely with Professor Jeff Gee and graduate student Sarah Maher researching the magnetic fabric of rocks created at fast-spreading mid-ocean ridges in order to understand lower crust accretion. By studying the responses of certain samples to thermal demagnetization and applied fields, she drew conclusions about their cooling responses and magnetic history. SURF was meaningful for Mijjum thanks to support from her mentors and because she found methods and techniques to help answer  her questions. Thanks to this lab experience,  Mijjum said she will confidently apply the lessons learned to further explore the magnetic evolution of other planets and moons in graduate school.


Klara Perkins is a senior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo pursuing a double-bachelor's degree in physics and Spanish and a minor in geology. At Scripps, Perkins worked with marine geophysicist Ross Parnell-Turner quantifying a major lava flow and corresponding axial traits on the East Pacific Rise—a fast-spreading mid-ocean ridge where new crust accretes daily. By using bathymetric and side-scan sonar datasets collected by AUVs, Perkins was able to curate high-level observations about the intricacies of this seafloor’s area. Despite the fact that a larger scale characterizing of seafloor around mid-ocean ridges is still largely unknown, Perkins’ research provides pivotal implications for the next predicted flow (which could be as soon as 2021) and helps better estimate axial magma chamber discharge and flow extent. The SURF environment in conjunction with Ross’ outstanding mentorship motivated Perkins to establish her role in interdisciplinary scientific research.  


Jennifer Pena is senior at UC San Diego majoring in marine biology. This past summer, she worked with Scripps PhD student Daniel Metz in Professor Ryan Hechinger’s lab to study the trematode species Euhaplorchis californiensis (EUCA) that infects the California horn snail (Cerithideopsis californica). This experiment allows the research group to better understand how the parasite defends itself from pathogens despite the host’s compromised immune system during infection. Experiencing SURF helped Pena solidify a game-plan for graduate school, where she plans to study behavioral ecology that focuses on predator-prey interactions. She also learned about research funding and gained insight from her mentors.


Nicole Posadas is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in earth science with a concentration on environmental science and minor in American Sign Language. Her passion for environmental injustice issues fueled her desire to create tangible change for underrepresented communities. This past summer, Posadas investigated the organic function of functional group sources and effects with FTIR in the aerosol composition at Pismo Beach. The study provided insight on the climatic properties of organic functional groups composing the aerosols—all of which have high uncertainties in their chemical constituents and behavior that can potentially  prompt future mitigation efforts. Posadas is grateful to the SURF program for providing her with the tools and resources necessary to help pave her way toward research in geosciences and pursue a graduate degree in atmospheric sciences.


Katherine Rigney is a senior majoring in biology with a focus in marine ecology at Carleton College, where she conducts research on the robustness of vulnerable and stressed ecosystems such as marshes, coral reefs, and benthic systems. This past summer, she worked in Lisa Levin’s lab analyzing the effects of substrate and seep activity on the community composition, as well as the total biomass of macrofauna in methane seep ecosystems. So far, her research has concluded that higher seep activity is associated with higher macrofaunal biomass in sediment as opposed to rock habitats. The SURF program has helped Katherine cultivate an excitement for benthic ecosystems which she will continue to study in graduate school.


Emma Robertson is a senior at University of Massachusetts, Amherst majoring in environmental science and geography. The ocean has always been central to her identity thanks to her upbringing in a coastal town in Southern California. Her research interests focus on the application of geospatial analysis in order to study climate change and conservation. This summer, Robertson worked in Dan Lubin’s lab where she used remote sensing data to detect surface melt on West Antarctic ice sheets. This research contributes to understanding the significant consequences for ice sheet stability and global sea-level rise. Outside of research, Robertson enjoys swimming, attending concerts, and exploring San Diego. She plans to pursue graduate studies in the geosciences.


Nyazia Sajdah-Bey is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in earth science with an interest in extant and extinct lineages of marine animal biomechanics. At Scripps, Sajdah-Bey worked in Professor Jennifer Taylor’s crustacean biomechanics lab where she compared leg morphology and climbing kinematics between three related crab species in order to understand how individual anatomy impacts their climbing ability. Being a part of the SURF program, working in the lab, and meeting other researchers at Scripps has inspired Sajdah-Bey to pursue a graduate degree in evolutionary Biology or marine biology.


Justin Templer is a senior at the University at Albany, SUNY majoring in atmospheric science and minoring in mathematics. His interest in meteorology peaked at a young age when a neighboring city in Upstate, New York was decimated by an F3 tornado—which left him with many questions about mesoscale weather systems. This past summer, Templer focused on the evolution of extratropical cyclones—in particular, atmospheric river (AR) systems that impact the Western U.S. His project used WRF model simulations to analyze the impacts of latent heating on the evolution of AR systems. Thanks to SURF, Templer has not only gained a better understanding of numerical weather prediction, but also sharpened his Python programming skills as well. He hopes that the findings from his summer research will inspire others to continue investigating links between latent heating and IVT (vapor transport) in extratropical cyclones. Ultimately, Templer plans to pursue a career in operational forecasting with NOAA’s National Weather Service. He looks forward to not only keeping the public informed about the weather, but also encouraging others to empower the STEM field through community involvement.

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