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From Researchers of the Month November 2018 at URECA

This month, URECA features two students who have been active in research in the School for Marine & Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS). Both currently participate in the  Stony Brook Southampton: Semester by the Sea program that emphasizes hands-on experiential learning. Both participated last summer in NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs (at different institutions). And both will be presenting their REU projects at the upcoming Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) meeting in Puerto Rico in spring 2019.


Biology major, Honors College, Class of 2020
Research Mentors:  Dr. Jackie Collier (SoMAS);  Dr. Frank Stewart & Dr.  Nastassia Patin (Georgia Tech – REU mentors); Dr. Kiyoko Yokota (SUNY Oneonta)


Marine Vertebrate major, Class of 2019
Research Mentors:  Maria Brown and Dr. Nicholas Fisher (SoMAS); Dr. Douglas Rasher (Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences – REU mentor)

Claire Garfield is a junior in the Honors College, majoring in Biology with minors in Chemistry, French and Marine Sciences. In her freshman year, Claire became involved in a SoMAS research project overseen by graduate student Gina Clementi that examines the effects of marine reserves on predatory fish. At the beginning of sophomore year, she began doing research under the direction of Professor Jackie Collier (SoMAS) and graduate student Kylie Langlois, working on a project that compares functional genes vs. 16s gene sequences in microbial communities from nitrogen removing biofilters (NRBs). This past summer, Claire participated in a REU program at Georgia Tech working on an aquatic chemical ecology project involving Karenia brevis (red tide) dinoflagellates, and the examination of genome sequences of the microbes found in different bloom states.

At SB, Claire has studied abroad in Rome and Ireland and will soon study abroad in Japan (Winter ’19). She has served as a teaching assistant for General Chemistry; and is a member of the SB Environmental Club and a copy editor for SB Young Investigator’s Review. She was inducted to Phi Beta Kappa in 2018.

Claire is from Oneonta, NY and was introduced to research as a high school student: she has participated in research over an extended period of time at SUNY Oneonta– studying algal communities and nutrient pollution. Claire presented a poster recently at the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography: Water Connects summer meeting in Victoria BC, Canada on “ Comparison of Algal Community Determination Techniques: Preliminary Evaluation of Pigment-Based versus Microscopic Analyses .” She has also presented her Oneonta research at the Northeast Global Lake Ecology Observatory Network meetings, the North American Lake Management Society, the GLEON 17 All-Hands Meeting, and the Northeast Aquatic Plant Management Society. Claire plans to pursue a PhD in biological oceanography. Her hobbies include swimming, scuba diving, and hiking.

As Claire nears senior year and prepares to do an honors thesis working with Dr. Collier, she reflects: “I love to do research. It’s the most relaxing thing I do….. I find a lot of solace doing research.” With her varied and extensive experiences in investigating phytoplankton community dynamics and microbial communities, she notes that “what sort of unifies them is the environmental angle and the community outreach. I like to know that the work I’m involved in will matter for people that I know – that I go to school with. That’s meaningful to me.”

Courtney Stuart  is a senior, majoring in Marine Vertebrate Biology. At the start of her junior year, Courtney joined the research laboratory of Professor Nicholas Fisher (SoMAS), where she worked closely with graduate student Abigail Tyrell. Courtney assisted with data collection and analysis for a project that investigated whether copepods are most affected by the viscous or thermal effects of temperature, and which aimed to increase understanding of how copepod behavior, locomotion, and feeding are influenced by environmental perturbations. In her junior year, Courtney took a class in GIS, served as a Teaching Assistant for GIS Fundamentals, and presented a GIS-project supervised by Maria Brown (SoMAS) at the URECA campus symposium (April 2018) titled  “Geospatial Analysis of Tiger Shark Distribution and Habitat Utilization Related to Depth and Potential Ontogenetic Diet Shifts Along the Subtidal Eastern Coastline.”  Courtney’s GIS-training and background proved to be particularly useful this past summer when she participated in an NSF-funded REU program at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine. Working with her REU mentor, Dr. Douglas Rasher, and post-doctoral scientist Dr. Thew Suskiewicz, Courtney performed geospatial analyses of the Gulf of Maine’s kelp forests over the past quarter-century, did predictive modeling/data analysis, and gained experience in the field aboard a research vessel. Although her REU is over, she is still producing maps using GIS data and contributing to the lab’s greater project. Courtney looks forward to attending the ASLO meeting in Puerto Rico this February, where she will present:  “Kelp – a Comeback Story: A Geospatial Analysis of Maine’s kelp forests over the past quarter century.”  In addition to participating in Semester by the Sea this year, Courtney is employed as a Deckhand at Southampton. She assists in outreach tours for high school groups, during which she conducts trawls, plankton tows, water and sediment samples, etc. At SB, Courtney has previously served as a Resident Assistant, and is a current member of the Marine Science and the Environmental Science Clubs. In April of 2018, she was awarded the Jeffrey Eng Memorial Scholarship in Environmental Studies and was recognized with the 2nd place People’s Choice Award at the ESRI Long Island GIS Conference. This past summer, the GIS project that she completed during her course at SB was presented at the 2018 ESRI International User Conference in San Diego, CA. Additionally, this fall she was selected as a recipient of the 2018 Evan R. Liblit Memorial Undergraduate Scholarship.

Courtney is from Nashua, New Hampshire, and grew up taking frequent trips to the coast. In summer 2017, she worked as a naturalist and environmental educator at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, NH, where she independently taught programs on a variety of organisms, including species such as the American lobster, horseshoe crab, and chain catshark. Courtney is currently applying to graduate programs and hopes to build on her interest in using GIS to approach community ecology questions.

Courtney is enthusiastic about the varied experiential learning opportunities she’s had as an undergraduate. Regarding research, Courtney observes that:  “When you participate in research, it makes you aware of the process from start to finish. It challenges you and forces you to develop critical thinking skills so that when you run into a problem – you learn how to solve it .” Regarding the Southampton program, she unequivocally states:  “I can’t recommend Semester by the Sea enough. When I came in as a freshman, I had heard about it and thought that I’d love to participate. That’s why I planned my schedule so that I could be there my whole senior year. . . Now that I’m living there, it’s amazing. It’s exactly what I hoped it would be! All of the classes are very specific to marine science; the community is close, and everyone is willing to help each other.”

Below are excerpts from Claire and Courtney’s interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview:

Karen .  Tell me about  your research experience this past summer.

Claire. I did an REU in aquatic chemical ecology at Georgia Tech which was an amazing experience. Summer research is always great because when you’re doing things over the school year, you have to balance quite a bit with classes and what not. . .But with summer research, you can have your entire summer open to lab work. It was a great time and the research project was incredible. I really learned a lot of molecular biology techniques doing that. I learned to use NMR and mass spec. I worked in an organic chemistry lab. And I think that the skills I picked up will really help me with doing my senior thesis next year.

Courtney: I did an REU program at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences – up in East Boothbay, Maine. It was amazing. I wanted to get involved in a project that would let me use GIS in some capacity, and I was really lucky and fortunate that my whole project let me grow those skills. The entire REU experience was better than I thought it could possibly be. I was able to interact with other scientists and all of us were doing such different projects. There were people working on chemical oceanography, physical oceanography, coral reef ecology – even the molecular structure of photo-oxidized oil in the water – it was very interdisciplinary. And it was great getting to live with a fun, energetic group of people who were doing all sorts of different things, and to learn about each of their projects as we went along.

Karen.  How has research enhanced your education?

Courtney: I don’t think I would have gotten as much out of my education if I’d never done research. If you’re in a STEM field, it’s really helpful to get hands-on experience in order to actually  see what you’re learning in class happen in front of you. For instance, you can read a paper about copepods and how they are moving under a cold and viscous fluid…but until you watch it under a microscope, you might not be able to fully understand what you’re reading. Or if you’re just using GIS in class with the data that you were given – sure you can understand what the tools are and how to use them to answer a homework question – but when you are actually using them with your own data, having to mine through your data and get it into the right format for GIS analysis, and having to choose which tool is the most appropriate to use – that’s a whole other process…

I think I actually enjoy research most when I find results that I wasn’t expecting – which has happened quite a bit. You go in thinking that you know what results you’re going to get, and then you run your model and discover something you didn’t expect. That’s also the hardest part – figuring out why you got a result that you weren’t anticipating.

Karen. What other challenges does research pose?

Claire. When I first started doing research, I struggled admitting that I didn’t know how to do something or I was nervous to ask questions. Communication can be really difficult, especially if you’re a bit shy. But you learn that you have to work in a team, and you have to communicate well with your teammates. I’ve improved, a lot actually, because I’ve had to…. You really can’t get away with being unwilling to communicate your mistakes or your uncertainty. And it goes beyond the lab:  I’m much more apt to raise my hand in classes and admit that I don’t know something than I was before.

I think it’s important to know that it’s totally okay to make a mistake. People do appreciate that you’re trying to learn when you’re in lab. I’ve never had a mentor who didn’t prioritize that–the fact that I am trying to learn. I’ve never had to work with anyone who was more concerned with having a flawlessly done methodology than their mentee learning how to do things. It’s important to learn not to be afraid to make mistake, to ask for help. In some ways, that is what makes research different from classroom learning because when you make a mistake in the classroom on an exam (especially a final), you’re punished for it. But with research, for the most part, when things go wrong, you can take your mistakes and bounce back and learn from them.

Karen.  Do you think your presentation/communication skills have improved through research?

Courtney: Definitely! That began for me in the Fisher Lab. At the end of both my semesters as a research volunteer, I had to submit a final report to Abby and Dr. Fisher explaining what I had learned over the semester, what surprised me, and what discoveries I thought were most important. When I went to Bigelow, I had many opportunities to explain my project openly to a group of people who were always there to help and give me constructive criticism. We presented to each other over and over again, asking each other questions such as: “Do you think this makes sense or should I phrase it differently?” “Does this graph help you understand this concept?” …My mentor and the other senior research scientists at Bigelow were always open to helping us learn how to better explain our projects. They had a lot of tips regarding how to make research more understandable – not only to the scientific community – but to the general-public, to anyone who might happen to walk in and ask: “What are you working on? Can you explain it to me?”

Claire. Going to various conferences – in addition to being lots of fun — really helps you improve your presentation skills. And just in general, when you’re involved with research – you are doing a lot of writing, summarizing what you did. I’d say that most of the writing that I now do in college relates to research: finishing my final paper for the REU Project, or writing up abstracts for a meeting, writing up lab notebooks— all of that has helped me to improve communication skills.

Karen. Have your mentors had a big impact on your overall research experience?

Claire. I’ve been very lucky. All of the research mentors I’ve had have been incredibly supportive and helpful. Prof Collier–she’s so wonderful! It’s really nice to have a research mentor who is just very willing to let me pursue my own side projects. My mentor from the REU was also fantastic. And my first mentors at Oneonta were also a big influence.

Courtney: My mentors have been phenomenal. Dr. Nicholas Fisher, Maria Brown, and Dr. Douglas Rasher have all been incredible resources and role-models for me. I am still very close with all 3 of them, and they are helping me in my approach to moving on to graduate school. When I have questions for them about graduate programs, research, or the next step to take, they’re the first ones to help me out and give me words of encouragement.

Karen. Was it helpful getting involved in research early on?

Claire. I think my high school research experience really helped informed my interests in the long term. It was also nice starting off college knowing that I do like research and science. And now – because of my experiences, I have a much clearer idea of what I like and what I want to do. It’s a nice position to be in.

Courtney.  My involvement in research truly began during my junior year at SBU, and for me, the timing worked out great. But I had also done some research when I was in high school through my biotechnology program, and I knew coming into college that Stony Brook was a school known for its STEM programs and that I would have opportunities to be involved in research. That’s one of the critical reasons that I chose Stony Brook.

Karen. What advice about research do you have for fellow undergraduates?

Courtney:  Honestly, what I learned is that all you have to do is ask. You can go over to Challenger or Endeavour Halls at SoMAS, see if there’s someone who is conducting research that you’re interested in, and just ask “Can I get involved? Do you have opportunities for undergrads?”  When you read up about the different research groups, and you see something that sparks your interest — you just need to follow up and go talk to the PI. There’s so much to learn from the professors and grad students here, and they’re all willing to help.

Claire. I’ve had honestly nothing but great experiences from all the research I’ve ever done–but not everyone gets that. I think doing research should be doing something that you enjoy. So if something is not working out, I think that you need to be honest about where you want to be. You don’t have to force yourself to do something that makes you miserable. Maybe it’s not for you. Or maybe you just haven’t found the right lab or the right project yet. I think it’s really important not to neglect your mental health and to just know that there’s nothing wrong with waiting and looking around to find that specific thing that does it for you. Also – and this is useful too– don’t be afraid of a rejection letter.  I think I applied to 9 programs this summer….maybe only one will work out but you can’t get the opportunity if you don’t try.



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