L to R: Derek Grimes, Kiefer Forsch, Angelica Rodriguez, and Ivan Moreno.

SURF Program Steers Students Toward Path of Research and Discovery

Q&A with four SURF program alumni, who are currently pursuing their PhDs at Scripps Oceanography, on how the program shaped their decision to pursue graduate school

Every summer, a diverse group of about twenty undergraduate students from across the United States spend ten-weeks at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego conducting research and cultivating lasting connections with peers and mentors.

The Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program gives admitted students the opportunity to dive into science, to engage in research aimed at understanding and protecting the planet, and to forge life-long connections within the science community. The program serves to increase diversity within the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields by encouraging students from underrepresented groups to apply, as well as those from universities with limited research opportunities. The SURF program receives the majority of its funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site grant. The application period for the summer 2019 program is open through March 8, 2019.

The SURF program functions as a stepping-stone for undergraduate students pursuing their PhDs by providing resources beyond hands-on research experience, including weekly research training workshops, a GRE preparation course, and exposure to grant writing. The program is designed to prepare students for a successful career in earth and marine sciences by equipping them with the necessary tools and skill-set to explore these fields in a more purposeful direction.

In addition to gaining foundational research experience, graduate school preparation, and fundamental mentor-mentee relationships, participants also receive a $6,000 stipend, on-campus housing, and compensated travel fees to and from San Diego. By providing these resources for participants, the SURF program emboldens undergraduate students to continue their path of discovery and ambition.

After spending ten-weeks conducting original research, the SURF program culminates in late August with a research symposium that showcases SURF participants’ scientific findings.

Currently, nine former SURF participants are continuing to make progress in the earth and marine sciences as graduate students at Scripps Oceanography. We interviewed four of these SURF alumni about their experience in the program and found a common thread in their responses–the program was transformative because it immersed them in relevant research and a community of support.

Derek Grimes

Derek Grimes received his undergraduate degree from University of North Carolina Wilmington and is currently in the Physical Oceanography curricular group at Scripps.

How did the SURF program influence or support your interest in pursuing a PhD? And specifically, to pursue a PhD at Scripps?

The SURF program was my first undergraduate research experience so it had a dramatic influence on my academic career. The experience inspired confidence in my decision to apply for a PhD program. After the SURF program, I knew Scripps Oceanography was the right fit for me. The graduate community here at Scripps is very accepting and tight-knit. I made close contacts with grad students either surfing, at TGIF (a Friday social tradition), or knocking on their door to ask MATLAB questions. Those brief encounters blossomed into friendships, and I knew that with the Scripps community, I'd be able to handle anything the PhD program threw at me.

What would you say to a student who is hesitant about applying to the SURF program?

Don't be! When I applied, I had very little to offer researchers at Scripps on paper. I was just out of my sophomore year, and still early in my physics curriculum. However, I had a passion for the ocean and was not afraid of hard work. The purpose of the SURF program, as I see it, is to expose passionate and budding scientists to research activities, no matter how short their CV or what institution they're from.

What were some non-research related highlights of your experience in the program?

There were about twelve undergrads from all over the world when I attended. We celebrated successes, commiserated failures, and thoroughly enjoyed our summer in San Diego. We barbecued, went to concerts, and spent off-days at the beach. They became my friends and colleagues. I still visit with them at conferences or whenever we cross-paths. I've also kept friendships with some of the grad students who mentored me during the SURF program. The research community is pretty small, and having close contacts across disciplines is a great way to foster a supportive community.

Kiefer Forsch

Kiefer Forsch received his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College, and he is now in the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry curricular group at Scripps Oceanography.

How did the SURF program influence or support your interest in pursuing a PhD? And specifically, to pursue a PhD at Scripps?

I had already participated in several research experiences prior to attending the SURF program, but I was still unsure about the direction I would go post-graduation. My experience with the SURF program was transformative. I was exposed to the wide breadth of research in the earth sciences, and absolutely loved oceanography, which was something I had little experience being from the land-locked part of the country. The combination of high-level research, kind and encouraging faculty and students, and willingness to try everything led me to pursue doctoral programs across the country.

Without the SURF program, I would not have known that chemists, biologists, and physicists could conduct field work together at sea. My fascination with nature and the atomic scale fit within the global perspective that scientists at Scripps uphold. It was during the SURF program I considered several of my interests could be combined by pursuing a degree at Scripps.

What would you say to a student who is hesitant about applying to the SURF program?

Go for it! It can be a lot of work to apply for summer internships while simultaneously managing coursework, but it is well worth your time. Some of the most important questions for humanity and environmental conservation are being tackled here. The atmosphere at Scripps is one of exploration, discovery, learning, and societal beneficence and is very stimulating for curious minds.

The SURF program is wonderful because it fully supports each student, offers a modest stipend and encourages students to think about the next step. Demonstrating initiative and willingness to try research can go a long way; people notice genuine passions.

What were some non-research related highlights of your experience in the program?

I think it’s poetic and extremely fortunate that Scripps is located beside a beautiful shoreline. It seems that the science washes ashore, right up to our labs. In fact, many research projects, ongoing time-series programs, and professors utilize our close proximity to the ocean for ocean discovery and teaching. For the first time in my life, I was living close to the ocean, so I took full advantage. I tried snorkeling and surfing and had lots of fun doing it.

One of my favorite days was watching the Fourth of July fireworks at the glider ports, not far from Scripps campus. There I could see many colorful displays up and down the California coastline. I also formed lasting friendships with other students in the SURF program. Those shared experiences and human connections enrich your life and transcend summer research experiences.

Angelica Rodriguez

Angelica Rodriguez received her undergraduate degree from UC San Diego, and she is now in the Physical Oceanography curricular group at Scripps Oceanography.

How did the SURF program influence or support your interest in pursuing a PhD? And specifically, to pursue a PhD at Scripps?

I really enjoyed the work I did during the SURF program and the sense of accomplishment I got from the experience. I started knowing nothing about oceanography, but by the end of the summer I had learned so much that I wanted to learn more! Additionally, I looked at the people I was surrounded by and thought they had amazing lives with aspects that I would one day try to replicate. To me, obtaining a PhD was a way to make that happen.

Through my presence at Scripps, I became aware of its status as a leading oceanographic institution. As such, Scripps has the capacity to provide its students with immense support, opportunities, and resources that might not exist elsewhere. Additionally, Scripps students learn from some of the world's brightest minds and conduct cutting-edge research. I knew that the breadth of research conducted at Scripps would be beneficial to my personal and professional growth, and that the rigor of the coursework and program expectations would make me a better scientist.

How did the research you conducted during the SURF program influence your current research?

In 2011 I participated in the first SURF program working with Scripps Professor Sarah Gille and researcher Matt Mazloff. I was fortunate to be able to continue working with them through the following academic years and into graduate school. We eventually published a paper, "An oceanic heat transport pathway to the Amundsen Sea Embayment," which is to be included as a chapter of my doctoral dissertation. While the remainder of dissertation entails projects focused on problems with more direct local relevance, such as nearshore pollution and nutrient transport, I use many, if not all, of the skills that I obtained while working with Sarah and Matt regularly.

What were some non-research related highlights of your experience in the program?

The relationships. I had a ton of fun with my cohort. We did a lot of activities outside of the program together that created a bond that we still hold. I keep in contact with many of them. I also cultivated a close relationship with my advisors who continue to provide me with advice and less structured mentorship.

Ivan Moreno

Ivan Moreno received his undergraduate degree from CSU Dominguez Hills and is currently in the Marine Biology curricular group at Scripps.

How did the research you conducted during the SURF program influence your current research?

Once getting accepted to the SURF program, I was fortunate to get matched to a particular project that aligned perfectly with my interests. The opportunity to conduct research on thermophilic microbes and explore many of the questions I had prior to coming to Scripps was a great way to validate that this was something I wanted to pursue. While applying to graduate schools, I decided to apply to the lab where I was a SURF student. Currently, I am diving deeper into the same research area (exploring the diversity of microbes living in hot springs) as well as trying to answer several other questions about thermophilic microbes.

What would you say to a student who is hesitant about applying to the SURF program?

JUST DO IT! That is my first response when a student asks me about the SURF program, or what their chances are when applying to a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at a research-intensive institution like Scripps. The application is free, the projects being conducted here are awesome, and I had nothing to lose by applying.

Did participating in the SURF program help you in your overall career path? How so?

Absolutely! Being able to test the waters in a field that I had no experience in was the perfect way to determine if I wanted to pursue research in microbial ecology after finishing my undergraduate studies. In addition to the great research opportunities, I also participated in the workshops provided by the SURF program. All of those activities collectively prepared me extremely well for the arduous process of applying to graduate school the following fall.

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

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.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at ucsd.edu.

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