Research Experience for Undergraduates Program

Please welcome our guest blogger Colby!

Colby here- 

This was the day that we helped the Audubon Society research horseshoe crabs. WIth me are my mentors, Ricardo and Stephanie. The beach we were on had an amazing view, and Stephanie told me that not far away was a ferry for whale watching. Though the location was lovely, the beach was really dirty. There were many fishermen, so we had to walk carefully as to not run into their lines, step on a dead fish, or step on the trash littering the beach. To research the crabs, we counted the number of them present in the white box. We placed the box in the shallow water every ten steps. The society uses this information to maintain population surveys.

Last spring, I was accepted into an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program titled, “Systematics and Evolution of Arachnids” hosted by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). In January, I had gone to my advisor and asked if there were any internships available at museums. At first it did not seem very promising, but I soon found out about REU programs. These are internships available to students that are hosted at all types of institutions (universities, museums, etc.) in a variety of subjects. After filling out the online application for the REU at the AMNH, I waited weeks with anxiety for any response back. I am currently a geology student, and though this was advertised a biology project, I was able to use my undergrad research in paleontology to highlight that I had experience in both fields. I wrote my application with the intent to appear willing to learn, enthusiastic, and hard-working to compensate for my lack of biological research experience. I had never worked with molecules, and was nervous this would hurt my chances, but in the end this was not the case, and I feel lucky that it was not. After a couple of phone interviews, I was lucky enough to be offered the position, and for ten weeks of the summer I was housed at Columbia University on the upper west side of Manhattan while conducting research at the museum. I really love museums, so the chance to work for one, even temporarily, was a lot of fun.

This is me at the main entrance to the museum. I really love that entrance, because when you go through the rotating doors, the tall ceiling gives you the feeling you’re in a special place. Inside is a long necked dinosaur standing up, with a smaller version of itself following close behind. On the other side of the room is some kind of meat eating dinosaur, posed for an attack. A scene is implied: the mother herbivore is protecting her baby from danger. However, I heard from people this scene was highly inaccurate. I don’t mind the inaccuracies, though, because from the stairs where I’m sitting one can look into the very top windows and see the head of the sauropod, even at night. The sheer size always made me smile!

During the majority of my time in New York, I undertook a research project focusing on a mysterious order of arachnid called, “Ricinulei”, or, “Hooded-tick spiders”. These animals are very rare in collections and very understudied. There are currently less than 100 documented species worldwide, with only three genera or groups. Many of the specimens are either old, broken, or females which are not useful in identifying new species. Ricinulei are highly sexually dimorphic, meaning some features are only visible in males. There are certain characters that only appear in the males of the species, while all females look the same. For example, one character is the bulkiness of Leg II, in females this leg is the same width and length as the others. Luckily, the AMNH has a large collection, so this project is possible. My project was split into two parts: the first was to undertake a taxonomic revision of a monophyletic group belonging to the genus Ricinoides, including describing several new species. The second project focused on creating a phylogenetic analysis of Ricinulei using molecular data (DNA). The resulting phylogenetic tree I produced is the most comprehensive so far for this group of arachnids. This research will be published with me as an author through the museum’s own journal. 

This was taken at the bug eating event I attended in Queens. In addition to sampling all kinds of insect themed foods, there was a table set up with an “insect petting zoo”. This tarantula is housed in the museum usually, but she was brought along with other office pets to interact with guests. In addition to holding and kissing her, I held grasshoppers, caterpillars, millipedes, a scorpion, and an amblypygin. My favorite was this spider, because it had been my goal to hold one all summer. I admit I was nervous at first, but as soon as she climbed on my hand I got over my fear. At the end of a tarantula’s feet are two small, retractable claws used for traction. On your hand, it feels like a little tickle and makes them a lot less threatening.

Knowing the research I did was meaningful made this summer very rewarding. It has left me with more confidence in regards to my professional skills. I feel that I contributed real science to the museum and after surviving the schedule and work-load, I feel more able to complete homework and projects on time. I also gained a new perspective on what is expected of me from my professors and someday my boss. I now know what a real taxonomic paper should look like, and during my time in undergrad I hope to publish a paper of my own. The trust my mentor instilled in me is really encouraging, even though the work was hard. I was expected to participate in writing the paper that my mentor intends to publish, and I took all of the pictures that will be used in paper. I was also expected to give a final presentation during a symposium attended by many members of the museum staff. 

In addition to the research project, I went to events outside of work that will leave me with fond memories forever. One day, I traveled to a small island off the shore of Manhattan in order to document horseshoe crab mating habits with the Audubon society. Once, I attended an event at the Explorer’s Club, a group dedicated to actually exploring to the ends of the earth. I even spent one evening eating bugs prepared by a Brooklyn chef. I got to meet museum staff, including Neil Degrasse Tyson and Mark Norell. I made connections with my mentors and many other people that I will carry with me as I head into the future. I got to meet the other students in the program, friends I hope to have for years to come. We spent much of our free time in our neighborhood or exploring the city. Our badges allowed us free admission to almost every museum in New York and I spent a relaxing day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, I found the original William: a hippopotamus statue of which there is a replica at McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee’s campus where I am a student. Our dorm was located one block from the St. John’s Cathedral of the Divine. This is one of the oldest churches in New York and is very beautiful. I spent many nights sitting on the stairs watching the sky and the people. There was small, Hungarian pastry shop I miss dearly- they had the best salted caramel cake. 

I encourage other students to apply to REU programs or any other internships like it. This summer has given me a lot of encouragement as I finish my undergrad classes as well as provided guidance as I plan for grad school. Though REUs are often times very selective, institutions that host the programs are plentiful and applying to multiple programs will increase the chances of finding the right fit. I had a lot of fun this summer and hope that more students can have their own experiences.

This is me working in the Microscopy lab. This is the room I become most familiar with during my summer, the Nikon camera room. The camera is able to take a series of pictures going from top to bottom, layers the images over each other, and puts the finished product into focus. With this camera, I took many pictures comparing the differences in species and showing unique characteristics. To image a Ricinulei, we filled a petri dish with glass beads and then poured in ethanol. The ethanol keeps the animal preserved, and the beads keep it steady. Under the dish we laid a piece of paper to make the background white. Later, the beads will be photoshopped out of the pictures and they will be ready for publication.

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