A Semester Abroad at BIOS

The National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program gives students the opportunity to conduct real scientific research through a supervised internship with one of BIOS’s science faculty or staff. The 2019 REU cohort included nine students from eight colleges and universities around the United States. During their 12-week internships, REU students participate in a variety of activities to help encourage professional growth and impact valuable skills needed for success in the sciences, including workshops on grant writing, statistical analysis, experimental design, and writing scientific papers.

Since 1987, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded a research internship for undergraduate students called the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. The internships, which usually run for 10 to 12 weeks, are hosted at universities, research institutions, and professional scientific organizations and allow participants to work alongside faculty members and scientists on research projects in a wide range of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

BIOS has served as an REU host site since 1998, developing a unique REU program that includes not just research, but a series of educational experiences designed to give students a competitive edge when applying for their first job out of college, subsequent internships, or graduate school. Over 12 weeks, BIOS REU interns learn public presentation skills, experimental design and record keeping, data analysis and statistics, and how to write scientific papers and funding proposals.

At the end of their internships, they participate in a virtual poster session and present their results in a series of talks attended by BIOS faculty, staff, and fall semester students.

This year, BIOS welcomed nine REU students from colleges and universities across the United States. They arrived in Bermuda in late August and their internships took them through late November, allowing them to return home in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The following section includes a brief introduction to each of BIOS’s 2019 interns, a description of their research projects, and personal reflections on their time at BIOS and experience within the REU program.

Tiburon Benavides is a third-year student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York where he is completing a double major in bioinformatics and molecular biology and computer science. Over the past few years, he has sought opportunities to combine his passions in biology and computer science, including the creation of novel protein biosensors. While at BIOS, he worked with microbial ecologist Rachel Parsons studying the microbes associated with Sargassum, a floating marine algae. Specifically, he investigated how Sargassum and its related microbes are affected by methylphosphonate, a chemical compound found in coastal runoff. His project, which continues from previous experiments, will further illustrate how coastal runoff impacts ocean ecosystems. With Parson’s support, Tiburon extended his internship by five weeks to continue working on his project and to assist Parsons with automating microscopy protocols for the BIOS Microscopy and Image Analysis Facility.

“From the friendships that I’ve made during my internship to the practical lab experience I’ve gained, there is definitely no where else I would rather have been this fall semester,” Benavides said. “The community-driven culture at BIOS is an extremely rare thing to find these days and it makes the experience just that much better.”

Isaiah Calhoun is a geology major at Georgia Highlands College in Cartersville, Georgia where he works as an intern with the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. During his internship at BIOS he also worked with Rachel Parsons on a project studying how microbial communities adapt to conditions of low oxygen, pH, and temperature. To do this, they looked at samples collected from Devil’s Hole in Harrington Sound, Bermuda, which has a naturally occurring oxygen minimum zone that forms in response to the seasons. Studying such areas allows scientists to understand how marine bacteria react to environmental changes, and how oxygen minimum zones form in other coastal areas around the world.

“My REU internship connected me with a community of people that are very welcoming,” Calhoun said. “I will use everything I learned in future jobs and I plan to continue with science thanks to this experience.”

Harvey Castillo is a senior at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where he is studying wildlife biology. He has a passion for nature and the environment and considers conservation and community involvement to be of the utmost importance as he pursues his education and career goals. Castillo worked with biological oceanographer Amy Maas researching the physiological responses of microscopic zooplankton to changing ocean temperature. Specifically, he looked at a type of zooplankton called copepods, which transport nutrients from the surface waters to depth and form the base of the marine food web as primary consumers. Understanding how these organisms respond to changing ocean temperatures will help scientists better gauge the impact of global climate change on ocean biogeochemical cycles. 

“I came to BIOS to learn how to design and carry out research and I learned that and so much more,” Castillo said. “The other REU interns became a small family and I will carry these friends and my time at BIOS in my heart for the rest of my life.”

Michelle Diminuco is a third-year environmental sciences student at the University of Virginia in Charlottsville, Virginia. Prior to coming to BIOS, she participated in a three-week tropical field ecology course in the Bahamas and worked as a research assistant for a doctoral student investigating blue crab larvae. During her REU internship she worked with reef ecologist Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley and marine biologist and ecologist Samantha de Putron on a long-term project assessing the resilience of coral to environmental change. She studied tissue samples from corals that were transplanted from shallow to deep reefs in order to see if and how their physiology changed. Research such as this sheds light on the “Deep Refugia Hypothesis” which suggests that deeper reefs may provide environments for shallow corals to recover after disturbance events, such as bleaching.

“I would recommend this REU program to all undergraduate students because it gave me the opportunity to discover if scientific research is something I want to pursue as a career,” Diminuco said.

Allison Doolittle is a marine biology student at Los Angeles Harbor College in Los Angeles, California where she works as a mentor for incoming freshmen in the college’s STEM program. After working as a volunteer at The Aquarium of the Pacific, she decided to earn a doctorate degree and conduct marine research as a career. While at BIOS, she worked with reef ecologist Yvonne Sawall on a long-term project investigating the impacts of oxybenzone—an ingredient in many sunscreens—on the physiology of Bermuda’s corals. For her project, she used an instrument called a fluorometer to take daily measurements of corals in an experimental setup, which allowed her to assess the corals’ photosynthetic efficiency as an indicator of health. Given the prevalence of sunscreen in coastal and marine environments, research into the effects of oxybenzone will help inform the conversation about how best to protect fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs.

“Through my internship, I gained a more realistic view of what it means to be a successful marine biologist and the many different jobs that you can hold with a marine science degree,” Doolittle said. “I gained a lot of practical research experience and the mentors at BIOS went above and beyond my expectations in terms of being supportive and making me feel comfortable asking questions.”

Sophie Ferguson is a student at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) in Miami, Florida where she is majoring in marine science and biology. She applied to the NSF REU program after working with a RSMAS faculty member on a project studying the effects of carbon dioxide on corals. During her BIOS REU internship she worked with coral reef ecologist Eric Hochberg studying the impacts of oxybenzone on reef communities. Specifically, she used an instrument called a spectrometer to measure how efficiently corals perform photosynthesis within their tissues. The results from her research will be combined with Allison Doolittle’s data and used in a paper submitted for publication by Hochberg and Sawall to a peer-reviewed scientific journal later this year.

“The knowledge I gained through this internship is so much more than I could have gotten in a classroom,” Ferguson said. “This experience taught me how to be a better scientist and that will definitely benefit me in the future.”

Andrew Matsiev is a third-year student at the University of California at Santa Cruz where he is double-majoring in molecular, cell, and developmental biology and psychology. Prior to coming to BIOS, he volunteered in a community lab in Silicon Valley sequencing the genome of the cuttlefish, a marine mollusk related to squid and octopus. At BIOS, he worked with research specialist Tim Noyes using environmental DNA samples (also known as eDNA) to determine which fish species inhabit the mangroves surrounding Bermuda. Mangroves act as nurseries for many important marine species in Bermuda, and healthy mangroves help mitigate some of the impacts of climate change.

“The BIOS REU program is a great opportunity to experience a new culture and environment, not as a tourist, but as a researcher coming to the island to work,” Matsiev said. “My internship was a fantastic springboard for future scientific work and I highly recommend this experience to anyone that has the chance to attend.”

Charlie Schneider is a senior at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado where he is majoring in organismal biology and ecology with a minor in environmental issues. His interests shifted from conservation to marine science when he sailed from Hawaii to American Samoa studying coral reefs and biological oceanography through a program with Boston University. At BIOS, he worked with reef ecologist Yvonne Sawall studying the changes in the photosynthesis and respiration rates of coral and algae over a 24-hour period. Understanding how coral and algae budget their energy expenditure is critical to understanding the fundamental functions of coral reefs.

“Taking three months away from my home university during my last year of college was a leap of faith, but I never doubted that my time at BIOS would be worth it,” Schneider said. “I’ve gained far more than just a set of practical research skills and I’m grateful to the BIOS REU program for welcoming me.”

Ashley Smith is a third-year biology student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she takes part in the Student Health Advisory Council and is working toward her goal of becoming a private-practice pediatrician specializing in pulmonology. During her time at BIOS, she also worked with Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley investigating two lionfish populations in Bermuda. Using 400 fin clips from lionfish collected over the last five years, she is using genetic barcoding to determine: the ratio of the two lionfish species; differences in the distribution between the two species; differences in population demographics (such as size frequency and sex ratio); and how connected these populations are to populations in other areas of the region. Her research spans various sites in Bermuda in an effort to provide a comprehensive understanding of the invasive lionfish to develop future management strategies.

“The BIOS REU program is a fantastic opportunity for students to learn marine science in both field and laboratory settings,” Smith said. “I highly recommend others take part in this opportunity because the lessons learned and the memories made will exceed your expectations.”

For more information on the BIOS REU program, please visit http://www.bios.edu/education/reu.