A New Frontier in Science Teaching and Learning

Kathryn (Katie) McLaughlin, 19, a rising sophomore and a computer science major at Princeton University, worked remotely on a 12-week Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) Internship this summer. Her research focused on how corals adjust to strong seasonal changes in temperature that occur in Bermuda, with the goal of better understanding the underlying mechanisms of the corals’ thermal tolerance, which is an essential ability to cope with and adjust to fluctuations in sea surface temperatures due to global climate change.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced BIOS, as well as many other research and education institutions around the world, to suspend on-site experiential learning activities, including multiple university-level summer internships. However, due to a unique alignment of circumstances, including both the proposed research project and the intern’s skill-set and technical expertise, BIOS was able to offer the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) Internship remotely this year.

The PEI Internship allows Princeton University undergraduate students the opportunity to participate in 12-week, fully funded summer research internships at BIOS. Students choose from a list of potential research projects developed by BIOS faculty and staff that cover a broad range of topics, including atmospheric sciences, environmental education, marine biology and genomics, microbial ecology, natural hazard and risk prediction, and oceanographic sciences.

Kathryn (Katie) McLaughlin, 19, is a rising sophomore and a computer science major at Princeton. She applied to the PEI Internship program to work with Yvonne Sawall, a marine benthic ecologist at BIOS, on a project investigating how corals adjust to the strong seasonal changes in temperature that occur in Bermuda. The goal of her project is to better understand the underlying mechanisms of the corals’ thermal tolerance, which is an essential ability to cope with and adjust to fluctuations in sea surface temperatures due to global climate change.

“At the time of my application, I was taking a class where we surveyed the implications of the ongoing climate crisis and discussed how the oceans and coral reefs are greatly affected by this,” McLaughlin said. “I felt this internship would be a great way to explore this on a deeper level.”

The nature of the internship lends itself well to a remote design, particularly since it involves the analysis of two years’ worth of previously collected data rather than hands-on experiments in a laboratory setting. This also allows McLaughlin to leverage her experience working as an intern at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, where she used Python (a computer programming language) to process large volumes of data collected by biomedical devices.

“When I saw the listing for the research project on the PEI website, I knew there were some skills I had developed at Scripps that I could bring to the table,” she said. “I also knew there was still a lot that I could learn from this internship and I felt that BIOS offered a great place to see a research project through from start to finish.”

From June 1 through August 21, McLaughlin and Sawall worked together, meeting daily through online communication platforms and email to recap work from the previous day, addressing questions and setting targets for the coming days. Through a combination of online lectures, guided home study, and data analysis, McLaughlin was able to learn more about two topics that interest her the most: coral reefs and data analysis research methods. Toward the end of her internship, she wrote a project report detailing her findings and presented her research to the BIOS community in a zoom presentation titled Responses of corals to temperature changes that reflect the large seasonal temperature range of Bermuda (20-28°C). 

“Katie was very much suited toward this style of internship,” Sawall said. “She loves coding and computer-based challenges and is very organized and self-motivated, which are helpful in ensuring a productive remote learning experience."

Despite the challenges presented by a remote internship, including a significant time difference (McLaughlin worked from home in California, which is four hours behind Bermuda) and the lack of camaraderie that is traditionally present among summer interns on the BIOS campus, she remained positive and upbeat about the experience.

“When I heard that most of my friends’ summer plans were being canceled due to COVID-19, I was beyond worried that my internship was next on the chopping block,” she said. “I’m incredibly grateful that I still had the opportunity to gain experience in the interdisciplinary topics of marine biology and data science and learn how to extract insightful conclusions from massive amounts of data.”