Published August 30, 2012
Most college students spent the past few months back home enjoying the warm weather and their mother’s home-cooked meals. However, Haley Arnold, a sophomore chemistry major, found herself on Sapelo Island, a small unpopulated island off the coast of Georgia, researching algae blooms.
Arnold, who is also a UB Presidential Scholar, was one of several UB Honors College Scholars who conducted summer research through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). The NSF program funds students in engineering and the sciences to study at a variety of universities that this summer included the University of Alabama, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Wisconsin.
Geoffrey Fatin, a sophomore physics major and Presidential Scholar, was assigned to an REU site at Wayne State University to study triple vector boson production at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which was home to the world’s second-largest energy particle accelerator.
UB’s Honors College pushes its students to complete undergraduate research to prepare them for graduate school. Scholars can use the opportunity to preview graduate programs and build relationships with faculty, all while working on interesting projects during the summer.
What drew Arnold to the University of Georgia Marine Institute at Sapelo Island was her interest in the destructive nature of red tide plankton. Residing in the Gulf of Mexico and within the nightmares of fisherman, red tide plankton produces several toxins that can decimate all wildlife in an area.
Arnold used a system of filters and polymer resins to identity and characterize chemicals released by the plankton. Those chemicals then were tested on other organisms, such as different species of plankton, to understand their effects.
By studying the plankton, researchers can understand what causes algae blooms to occur and find ways to counteract the toxins it releases.
And in addition to learning about algae, Arnold gained an interest in marine biology. Despite the heavy involvement of chemicals, she was surprised to find the research project was biology-focused.
Prior to the summer, she had no experience in the field of biology. Coming from a chemistry background, she describes this research as “jumping into the deep end of the pool.” But now she is glad she took the plunge and has even decided to pick up biology as a minor.
“I knew I wanted to go into research, but I had no idea what type I wanted to focus on,” says Arnold. “The program showed us how chemistry and biology played a role in marine life, and helped me narrow my choice down to marine studies.”
Arnold wasn’t the only UB Honors College Scholar who spent the summer in a tropical location. Esther Buckwalter, a senior environmental engineering major and Spanish minor, spent six weeks studying water availability and cloud forests in Costa Rica.
Buckwalter, who is a Presidential Scholar as well, was one of 12 students from across the country selected to participate in a summer REU through Texas A&M University. The program took them to the university’s Soltis Center for Research and Education near the Monteverde Cloud Forest in central Costa Rica.
Along with other students, Buckwalter studied hydrologic and biogeochemical changes in the watershed of a tropical forest. While there, she built a weir—a concrete structure designed to collect data on flow rate—in the study watershed’s stream. This flow data, combined with groundwater levels from wells, was analyzed to understand the watershed’s response to storm events.
The students’ research also benefits local Costa Rican communities. The watershed was hardly studied before the REU started, but the newly collected data sheds light on water availability for communities in the area.
Applying her coursework to community and climate issues helped Buckwalter grasp the significance of her studies. Having an understanding of a real watershed will help her visualize the concepts in her courses this semester—and keep her more motivated, she says.
In July, students wrapped up the program by returning to Texas A&M to complete their analysis and present findings at a research symposium. Their summer research concluded the second year of the three-year program held at the Soltis Center in Costa Rica. Many students from the REU, Buckwalter included, will present their findings at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this December.
While Buckwalter will not return for the program’s third year, she will continue to analyze data collected in the forest. She says she will carry on her work improving the environment right here at UB as an active member of Engineers for a Sustainable World.