SURF Program 2023: Student Profiles

SURF program at Scripps provides students from across the country with opportunities to conduct research in earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences

A group of 11 talented undergraduate students were selected to be a part of the 2023 Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF program) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. 

Beginning on June 27, the 2023 SURF program is an eight-week summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) for students from institutions with limited undergraduate research opportunities. Funded largely by the National Science Foundation Division of Ocean Sciences, SURF students have the opportunity to conduct original research under the mentorship of a Scripps faculty member or mentor. The program also offers weekly seminars and workshops to help students develop career and research skills. SURF fellows gain important insight into graduate school studies and future careers in earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences. 

Over the past decade, the SURF program was largely shaped and led by Scripps Teaching Professor Jane Teranes, with instrumental support from Student Affairs Manager Josh Reeves. Following Teranes’ passing in 2022, the program has carried on thanks to the efforts of Reeves and several other Scripps colleagues.

Shailja Gangrade is currently a fourth-year PhD student at Scripps Oceanography, but she was once a fellow of the SURF program. According to Gangrade, this program launched her into the world of careful, detailed scientific research. She went from “being an intern to having organic, original thoughts about scientific processes in the ocean—just in one summer,” she said. 

“The world of oceanography became more and more familiar to me, and I learned the beautiful language of oceanographers through my wonderful mentors Lilly McCormick, Jessica Garwood, and Lisa Levin,” Gangrade said. “The SURF program also set me up for success as a future graduate student and researcher, especially thanks to Jane Teranes and Josh Reeves.”

According to the American Geosciences Institute, geoscience occupations have the lowest participation rate of underrepresented minorities out of all science and engineering jobs in the U.S. In efforts to increase diversity at Scripps Oceanography and within geosciences, the SURF program strongly encourages students who are underrepresented minorities, first-generation, economically disadvantaged, veterans, and other nontraditional backgrounds to apply. 

After spending eight weeks conducting research with peers and mentors, the 2023 SURF program will wrap up in late August with a research symposium that showcases the fellows’ scientific findings.

Application information for the summer 2024 program will be available in January. Visit the SURF webpage to learn more about the program and read the 2023 research project descriptions.


Meet the 2023 SURF program fellows: 

Gabriel Abdelnoor and Kiefer Forsch in lab gear


Gabriel Abdelnoor (he/him) (pictured on the right) is a senior from the University of Alaska Anchorage majoring in biological sciences with a minor in neuroscience. He is currently working in Kathy Barbeau’s lab and Sarah Aaron’s lab, alongside postdoctoral scholar Kiefer Forsch (pictured on the left). Abdelnoor is conducting glacial iron dissolution experiments in which he dissolves glacial silt, which is the sediment produced during glacial erosion, into purified ocean water. The water contains natural iron binding compounds or siderophores. These experiments help Abdelnoor analyze the reaction rate of the dissolution of iron in water in the presence of siderophores.



Headshot of Erien Cross


Erien Cross (they/them) is a senior at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón (USC) in Puerto Rico majoring in biology. This summer, they will be working in the Jensen Lab. Cross is investigating novel compounds produced by marine bacteria, such as the Actinomycetes, which are known as natural products. Cross is culturing Actinobacteria from marine sediments and testing them to see if they produce any novel compounds that could potentially lead to the findings of new antibiotics or other potential medicines.




Allison Hidalgo in front of Scripps Pier


Allison Hidalgo (she/her) is a junior at Washington and Lee University majoring in earth and environmental geoscience. She is working in the Munk Lab with scientists Cathy Constable and Matti Morzfeld. This summer, Hidalgo is investigating some details about what happened during the most recent geomagnetic field reversal, known as the Matuyama-Brunhes reversal, which took place approximately 781,000 years ago. Learning more about the earth's geomagnetic field is important for many reasons, but mostly because it shields us from cosmic radiation and helps with navigation systems.



Ebony Ikeemeka in lab gear


Ebony Ikeemeka (she/her) is a sophomore at Loyola University Chicago, majoring in biology with an emphasis in ecology. This summer, Ikeemeka is working in the Vernet Lab, specifically with graduate student Tammy Russell on the Penguano Project. This project analyzes penguin guano samples to isolate and identify microplastics that may have been ingested along with their normal diet. This microplastic research helps understand how manufactured products could be an additional stressor that puts the local ecosystem at risk.




Headshot of Ian Marroquin


Ian Marroquin (he/him) is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis where he studies applied mathematics. He is currently working with Lynn Russel in the Russell Lab and is studying back trajectory data to determine the origin of air masses. Using meteorological data, Marroquin has generated back trajectory files which contain longitude, latitude and altitude data at different points in time. This research brings a greater understanding of the components of San Diego’s air. If back trajectories generated from March illustrate that air masses are arriving to San Diego from Los Angeles, it may suggest that polluted air is traveling down to San Diego.



Gaelila Mckaughan posing in front of flowers


Gaelila Mckaughan (she/her and they/them) is a junior at UC San Diego majoring in environmental systems/ecology, behavior and evolution. Mckaughan is working in the Semmens Lab this summer. She is collaborating with the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program (CCFRP), which conducts hook and line surveys within marine protected areas (MPAs). Mckaughan uses CCFRP data to measure the successes of the MPAs on recreationally important fish populations. They are also contributing to the Grouper Moon Project by training artificial intelligence programs to track individual Nassau groupers.



Headshot of Alexandra (Alex) Mondragon


Alexandra (Alex) Mondragon (she/her) is a sophomore at Stanford University majoring in biology with a concentration in marine biology. She is working in the Scripps Acoustic Ecology Lab and her work involves identifying sounds made by Cuvier's beaked whales using the lab's high frequency acoustic recording packages (HARPs). These types of whales are common, but they are not easily spotted. Collecting their sound data helps develop more baseline data on their ecology. She is also separating Cuvier's beaked whale calls from other marine mammal noises to create a population time series for the lab's quarterly report for the Navy.



Headshot of Theresa Nguyen


Theresa Nguyen (she/her) is a junior at the University of San Diego majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry. She is working under the SCCOOS program with her project focusing on harmful algal blooms. Nguyen is studying pseudo-nitzschia, a common genus of microscopic marine algae that produces domoic acid, which is a neurotoxin. Some species of pseudo-nitzschia, such as shellfish, are capable of producing the neurotoxin. Learning more about pseudo-nitzschia is important because the neurotoxin it produces can lead to illness and death in seabirds and marine mammals and amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans.



Headshot of Lucas Sotozono


Lucas Sotozono (he/him) is a junior at UC San Diego double majoring in oceanic and atmospheric sciences and applied mathematics. Sotozono is working with Lydi Keppler, a postdoctoral scholar who is in oceanographer Sarah Gille's group. He is studying "eddies,” which are perturbations from the mean flow of an ocean current. They are analogous to atmospheric storms in the sense that they "spun off" from the mean flow (or a "perturbation"). The rotation direction impacts how carbon enters and leaves the ocean. Sotozono is researching which type of eddy is most prevalent in different regions of the Southern Ocean.



Carina Tostado in front of Scripps Pier


Carina Tostado (she/her) is a senior at UC Irvine where she studies earth system science. She is working in the Diaz Lab with graduate student Jamee Adams. Her project is focused on biogeochemistry in the ocean, particularly relating to an important nutrient for organisms known as phosphorus. Phosphorus is fundamental for all living things. To help with her research, Tostado is taking weekly samples of seawater off Scripps Pier to investigate the enzyme alkaline phosphatase activity (APA). Investigating the enzyme activity is important because it directly affects the availability of nutrients in the ocean. 

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

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