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Our cohort of undergraduates doing NES-LTER research remotely in summer 2020

One of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the NES-LTER project is that our summer undergraduate programs had to go online this year. Nevertheless, our cohort of undergraduates have still been doing research this summer, remotely, thanks to their dedicated and creative mentors/advisors and their own drive to learn. Meet them:

Ayanna Butler is a rising senior in civil engineering at Howard University, participating in the Woods Hole Partnership Education Program (PEP). From her home in Delaware, Ayanna is developing data analysis software with NES-LTER Information Managers Stace Beaulieu and Joe Futrelle. Together, they are creating T-S (Temperature-Salinity) plots to identify different water masses across the shelf. She is using previous cruise ship-track data and hopes to apply the new script to this summer’s transect cruise data. In our conversation with Ayanna, she said this 10-week project is her introduction to R, and in high school, she didn’t think she’d ever like coding. To Stace’s delight, Ayanna then admitted that “workflows are pretty good to help a non-coder work with a coder.” In terms of how this opportunity has influenced her future perspectives, she said, “I am a first generation college student, so literally everything since high school has been very new to me and everyone at home. I’m just figuring it out as I go. And I’ve liked hearing people’s graduate school stories.”

Andria Miller is a rising senior majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry at Jackson State University, participating in the SURFO program at University of Rhode Island (URI). Andria is our only undergraduate student doing fieldwork this summer, mentored by Susanne Menden-Deuer and postdoc Pierre Marrec. Because Andria had to stay in her home state of Mississippi, her fieldwork project became a limnology project on plankton community structure. Three days a week, she goes to nearby lakes to sample with her “limited and affordable resources.” Andria made her own plankton net and secchi disk, and the lab sent her a USB microscope and HOBO temperature & light sensor. But she needed to observe organisms < 40 um which the USB scope couldn’t do, so she’s been taking photos with her cell phone through a used microscope, then categorizes the plankton based on shape, color, size, and movement. She said it’s been “challenging but fun at the same time”, learning new skills working with Pierre, “who’s amazing!” This summer is her third REU experience, and from them all, she glowed as she talked about “so many possibilities” and how “the program has opened my eyes to graduate school”, closing with “I feel more confident now in terms of going into grad school more prepared.”

Jason Schaedler is a rising junior in ocean engineering at URI, working as an undergraduate research assistant in Susanne Menden-Deuer’s lab. When Covid shut down the campus, he worked from home in Pennsylvania, cleaning and cropping plankton images “until Pierre wrote a Matlab program to do it automatically.” Now he is back on campus, annotating images to identify dinoflagellates and ciliates from NES-LTER cruise samples. Jason said that as an engineering major, he wanted to learn more marine biology, “[it] is what got me into this and then I was told I might get to go to sea this summer on Endeavor.” Since that couldn’t happen (due to reduced crew numbers), he’s now excited about the image analysis and working on a simple imaging system of his own design. As for how Jason sees his experience with LTER, he said, “my career goal is to build robotics for undersea ROVs, but to be able to design an undersea robot just as an engineer you miss things. I want to be able to design with the specific biology in mind. From this experience with LTER, I can also work with the images taken by the robot.” And he added, after going to the window to see if Endeavor had left the dock on the summer transect cruise, “I will make it onto the Endeavor at some point, just not this cruise.”

Joshua Zahner is a rising senior majoring in marine science and computer science at University of Miami – RSMAS, participating in WHOI’s Summer Student Fellow (SFF) program. Joshua is conducting a project involving WHOI’s high performance computing (HPC) cluster, mentored by Rubao Ji and Joel Llopiz. He’s looking at the effects of temperature changes for population connectivity for fisheries species including Atlantic cod, haddock, and butterfish, all commercially viable species. His model runs, simulating spawning events on the HPC, include different species habitat conditions. Joshua humbly confessed that he does not mind remote work or being at a computer for 8 hours a day, but shared that at home in Missouri with his family, he doesn’t get to interact as much with fellow students. However, weekly calls with Ji, Llopiz, and with grad student Chrissy Hernandez, as well as meetings with other SSF’s, have been helpful. In terms of how this summer has influenced his next steps, Joshua said, it has helped him decide about applying to grad school, because he likes “doing more research than just software development. This was a nicely refined project that gave me an idea of the entire research process from formulating a question to generating data, just the entire process.”

Despite the fact that this summer’s REU cohort did not get to go on our transect cruise or get out to MVCO, they all gained valuable experience in the details of data collection, analysis, and coding, and we all learned together how to collaborate and share our research in online meetings.