The Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF program) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has just wrapped up its eleventh year of operation, with 26 fellows in the 2021 cohort. After transitioning to being partially remote in 2020, the summer program has made its return to an almost completely in-person experience.
Filled with cutting-edge research and personal mentoring, the SURF program is a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) that prepares students for a world of professional careers and academia in earth and ocean science. Undergraduate students from colleges and universities across the country are granted the opportunity to spend nine to ten weeks at Scripps, working alongside scientist mentors in a range of earth, oceanic, and atmospheric studies. SURF is largely supported by funding through the National Science Foundation, Division of Ocean Sciences.
The program provides students the opportunity to engage in an original research project, and offers weekly seminars and workshops to develop career and research skills.
SURF Program Director Jane Teranes said students can expect to learn valuable skills for navigating careers in science.
“SURF students gain scientific knowledge and research skills, gain confidence in their abilities, and gain awareness of opportunities in careers and graduate school in our fields,” said Teranes. SURF participants also make lasting personal connections and friendships within their cohort and with lab members at Scripps. Developing a sense of community and belonging is just as important as developing research skills.”
With these missions in mind, SURF continues to send alumni off to PhD programs, master’s programs, and professional careers. There are currently ten SURF alumni in the PhD program at Scripps, three in the master’s program at Scripps, and two in PhD programs in chemistry and biology at UC San Diego. These alumni all come from groups that are traditionally underrepresented within ocean sciences.
“Of the participants, all are continuing or have graduated from an undergraduate STEM major, and over 80 percent have careers and/or are in graduate school in our fields,” mentioned Teranes.
Dante Capone, SURF alumnus from the 2018 cohort, said the program had a profound impact on his professional future.
“SURF was transformative in shaping my career trajectory and gave me a noticeable and additional understanding of a research career, compared to peers who had undertaken only prescribed coursework,” said Capone. “SURF taught me that research is a process of failing, learning, and innovating—not simply results on a page. Thus, moving ahead in research meant that I must understand and enjoy the day-to-day before commiting to the marathon that is grad school.”
After learning about the process of applying to graduate school and funding during his time in the SURF program, Capone decided to take a year off after his undergraduate education to work as a research technician in order to gain experience before tackling a PhD. He then returned to Scripps to pursue his PhD, and is currently working in the biological oceanography curricular group under zooplankton ecologist Moira Decima. His research focuses on the real-world implications of how the smoke and ash from California wildfires affect our marine planktonic communities.
Safety protocols and other resources provided by UC San Diego enabled the 2021 SURF program to be mostly in-person, which allowed the cohort to gain hands-on experience.
"All of our SURF participants were included in campus symptom tracking, COVID-testing, and contact tracing protocols—that allowed us to run the summer program largely in-person with zero COVID cases,” said Teranes. “Our SURF participants and their faculty mentors really appreciated the return to hands-on research activities and to the engagement that happens when people are interacting in-person."
Under geoscientist Sarah Aarons, SURF fellow Isis Guadalupe spent the past summer studying particulate matter variability and composition in Southern California.
“One of my favorite parts of this summer has been my experience doing field work at Mount San Jacinto,” said Guadalupe. “It was three days of intense hiking, but it was such a fulfilling experience in which I was able to learn a lot and gain a new set of skills.” The research team collected dust samples at an elevation of nearly ten thousand feet, in order to study the impact of climate on chemical erosion and nutrient supply in mountainous soils.
Another member of the 2021 cohort, Alexandra Brown, also reminisced on her favorite SURF program experience: "I have really enjoyed the process of seeing a research project through to completion. Working in the lab and sorting preserved specimens was a privilege. I have been determined to get the most research experience I can to be prepared for graduate school; the SURF Program Director Dr. Jane Teranes and the members of my lab have been incredibly helpful with this.”
This summer, Brown researched the biomass distribution of pyrosomes (colonial sponge-like animals) and calycophorans (another colonial organism related to jellyfish) in the Southern California ecosystem in biological oceanographer Anela Choy’s lab, with postdoctoral researcher Elizabeth Hetherington.
Aside from preparing its students for successful futures in geosciences, one of SURF’s main missions is to increase the diversity of students who are interested in entering research and careers in ocean and earth sciences. The program encourages students of Hispanic/Latinx, Black or African American, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, and LGBTQIA+ identities to apply, in an effort to shape the geoscientist generations to come.
“I am very fortunate to be working in a diverse lab with several other female scientists this summer,” said Brown. “As a Black and Indigenous woman with a disability, I do not often see myself represented in the sciences, but I do plan to one day change that by working in academia myself to teach and mentor the next generation of scientists.”
On average, 75 percent of SURF fellows have come from demographic groups that are traditionally underrepresented in ocean and earth sciences.
“Geosciences is a field lacking diversity,” Guadalupe said. “I know there are efforts to make this better and I’m seeing more women being hired in important positions, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done in this regard.”
The SURF program is just one effort of many in regards to increasing diversity in geosciences. As successful as it has been, there are still more steps to be taken. Scripps also supports additional equity, diversity, and inclusion programs for its community members.
More details on the SURF program and its operation can be found here.