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.

Ian Forsythe, Invertebrate Paleontologist and Undergraduate Researcher

Ian with a  brachiopod shell.

I study ways we can tell species apart based on their morphology (the structure and shapes of their hard parts).  For my research, I use the fossils of brachiopods (marine animals that resemble clams) from the Upper Ordovician period (around 450 million years ago). I collect the majority of my data from fossils in museum collections but collect fossils in the field when I can’t find what I need in an existing collection. While the applications of my research may not be readily apparent it is actually applicable to a variety of things.

 Species are the fundamental unit we use to classify organisms and being able to tell them apart is an important skill. Being able to identify species based on morphology is a necessary step in many studies of evolutionary processes, climate change, ecology, and patterns of biodiversity (the numbers of species present on the Earth through time). This is even true for biologists studying modern animals! While modern biologists define species as members of a population that can actually or potentially interbreed in nature it isn’t reasonable or even possible to conduct breeding experiments for every animal on Earth. Therefore, from a practical standpoint morphology is the best way to identify species whether you study fossils or living organisms.

Images of Rafinesquina brachiopods, which Ian works on. Here, the specific shell features of this brachiopod are highlighted and labeled. These features are part of the brachiopod’s morphology, or shell shape and structure. Image from OrdovicianAtlas.org.

When I was five, I started collecting marine fossils from rocks near my home. The fact that where I lived used to be under the sea was amazing to me. Although I had an interest in science at a very young age, I didn’t consider it as a career until much later. It was a book I read my freshman year of college (Wonderful Life by Stephen J. Gould) that inspired me to pursue paleontology professionally. It is a story about the bizarre creatures that lived in the sea over 500 million years ago and the scientific struggle to understand them. My experience with science has been fascinating and rewarding in more ways than I can describe, but I have to say that my favorite thing about being a scientist is learning new and exciting things every day.

If I were to give one piece of advice to aspiring scientists, it would be that it is never too late to pursue a career in science. All kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds become scientists and many of them start out pursuing other things (I started college thinking I would be a writer). If you are getting ready to start college and unsure what degree you want to pursue, try taking some courses at a community college. There are so many fascinating fields in science it can be hard to know which one is right for you and community college is a wonderful place to get a feel for what you may want to pursue.

Luke Varner, Geologist

San Andreas Overlook en route to White Sands, NM

What do you do?
As an undergraduate at the University of South Florida I am in the process of undergoing the absorption of the necessary geologic common knowledge about Earth processes to become a geologist. In addition, I’m also learning the approaches and disciplines necessary to perform scientific observations and investigations that are required to do research and field work for my future endeavors in geology.

What is your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.?

I haven’t yet been afforded the opportunity to plan my own research or collect my own data. I have, however, taken a deep interest into volcanology, geochemistry, and petrology while assisting a graduate student and a research volcanologist with their investigations of the evolution of magma bodies. This has allowed me to use their geochemical analysis data retrieved from rock samples. During this time, I have applied calculus and statistics to the geochemical analysis data to form a geochemical model that describe the degree of crystallization that would result in those rock formations. The data sets for these rock samples were collected via electron microscopy.

How does your research contribute to climate change, our understanding of evolution, or to the betterment of society in general?
The research I have assisted with could help in both economical and societal benefits by helping understand how and where mineral deposits may form. In addition, it helps describe the geologic history (via rock formation) of an area or region which is of benefit to all.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
My favorite part about being a scientist is the opportunity that it provides to get out and question the how and why of things in the natural world. There are so many stories to be told about time (both deep and recent) that haven’t been told yet. Being a scientist offers the opportunity to contribute to both the scientific and non-scientific community by offering the possibility to help spread more understanding of the Earth’s natural processes. In my opinion, this is part of what helps keep alive the awe-inspiring wonder and “magic” about the Earth.

Investigating Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks in NM

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?
Even though I am 36 I would still be considered a “young” scientist myself in the sense that I am new to the field of geology. However, I can give the advice that if you have the desire to seek out to become a geologist, or any discipline for that matter, don’t hesitate to go for it. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to ask for help and guidance from your peers and fellows. The amount of support and guidance I have been given so far in my journey by professors and fellow students has helped guide and inspire me. In my experience, most individuals in the wide umbrella of geoscience are more than willing to help if they are capable.

What are your  experiences with returning to school at a later age and what were the driving forces behind this decision?
My reasons for returning to school were quite simple. I made some foolish life choices as young student graduating high school and ultimately lacked direction in my life for many years. After spending more than a decade in the landscaping industry I couldn’t escape the feeling of being wholly unsatisfied with my career. I finally reached a point where I was not excited about what my career path was. Three years ago, I set out to seek a new direction. I asked myself the question, “What is the thing that I enjoy doing the most in life?” and followed that question with another; “Is it possible to find a career that would place you directly in that activity or surroundings. My answers were, without a doubt, that I felt most at home while being out in the natural world as I am a hiker and backpacker who has always loved exploring the beautiful environments and monoliths you can find across the globe; and that as a geologist I could choose a focus that would provide me an opportunity to both be placed in the outdoors and to help expand knowledge and understanding of these places I loved so much. So, the choice was clear. Three years ago, I re-enrolled into community college and finished AA before transferring to USF to seek my BS in geology. The experience has extremely gratifying while also very challenging. Being a now 36-year-old adult meant that I had a many more personal responsibilities and bills than most of my fellow students. It can be a challenge to find enough time to fit in all my duties as an employee, as a son, and as friend while continuing to uphold my studies. Regardless, I always try to keep the end goal in mind and remind myself that this is all a part of the process. The greatest benefit I have received from returning to school is the gift of being able to stay focused on my goals. Since I have already experienced the oft confusing timespan of young adulthood, it is much easier for me to not get off course due to the perceived necessity of over indulgence in social gatherings in which I see many young students struggle with. I’m here to trust the process and enjoy the ride.

Follow Luke’s geology experiences by checking out his blog: click here!