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A Summer of Science on the Sea

WHOI Summer Student Fellowships offer a taste of research life

Source: Oceanus Magazine

It’s no surprise that the Summer Student Fellowship program at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is one of the most sought-after gigs for undergraduate science majors around the world. It’s a chance to spend a summer living in a picturesque seaside village on Cape Cod, which also happens to be home to one of the world’s premier centers for ocean science research, engineering, and education.

Launched in 1959, the highly selective program has just celebrated its 50th anniversary. It brings bright, talented students to Woods Hole to learn more about ocean science, attend lectures by Woods Hole scientists, and get paid to conduct independent research working alongside world-class scientists. After the summer, the Summer Student Fellows (SSFs) leave with a better understanding of what studying for a Ph.D. and being a professional scientist are all about.

Several current WHOI scientists were SSFs once upon a time and now advise SSFs themselves.

“Before coming to Woods Hole, I had only seen the ocean once in my life,” said former SSF Hanumant Singh, now an associate scientist in the WHOI Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering Department. “I remember thinking, ‘This is what I really want to do, and I’m getting paid for it!’ I still think the kids feel that way. They’re just so excited, and a lot of them end up coming back here.”

Lauren Mullineaux, a senior scientist in the WHOI Biology Department, remembers that her SSF advisor, geologist Pat Lohmann, “made a really nice balance between guiding me and giving me some freedom to explore, and I’ve tried to follow that model when I mentor my own students.”

At the same time, SSFs also “bring new ideas into the lab, and they help us out with projects," she said. "It keeps our science moving forward and our lab group lively.”

Right off the boat, right on a boat

The 28 Summer Student Fellows in 2009 were a dynamic group of seniors and recent graduates with majors ranging from mechanical engineering to geology to history. They came from as close by as Boston and as far as Canada, Thailand, and the United Kingdom, but all shared a passion for science and a keenness to dive into whatever their advisors gave them. 

Some of the students had aspired to work at Woods Hole since childhood, while others stumbled upon their projects just last spring. But by the end of the summer, each one found himself or herself immersed in life at WHOI.

“If you had to be anywhere for an REU [Research Experience for Undergraduates], this is one of the best places to be,” said SSF Rose Kantor, a biology major at Carleton College. She started her Summer Student Fellowship with marine chemist Tracy Mincer on a research cruise to Clayoquot Sound off Vancouver Island to collect samples of marine particles and study how bacteria communicate via chemical signaling called quorum sensing.

Another SSF, Ellie Bors from Oberlin College, went on a voyage with her advisor, biologist Tim Shank, to the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean on board the research vessel Kilo Moana. The cruise marked the first deployment of Nereus, WHOI’s new hybrid remotely operated deep-sea vehicle. She also wrote a blog called In an Octopus's Garden.

Garrett Mitchell from the University of Maryland worked in the lab of marine volcanologist Adam Soule, developing a photomosaic of seafloor images from the southern Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the site of a recent undersea volcanic eruption. 

Stimulating the inner nerd

The SSFs live together in cooperative housing called the Barn in the village of Woods Hole and on Oyster Pond near the WHOI Quissett campus, giving them a chance to socialize and exchange ideas with one another.

“All the students are from totally different backgrounds with this one common interest,” said Willy Goldsmith, a Harvard undergraduate who worked with basking sharks in WHOI biologist Simon Thorrold’s lab.

“It’s been so fun getting to interact with people my age who are interested in the same things,” said Tara Hetz, from St. Lawrence University, who worked on lobster fisheries with research specialist Hauke Kite-Powell in the WHOI Marine Policy Center.

“You can totally nerd out and people love it,” Bors said. “I don’t feel like I bore people!”

Sam Zipper, a recent Pomona College graduate, also enjoyed living at the Barn with the other SSFs, who “always had something fun that they want to do,” as well as getting to experience Cape Cod.

Broadened perspectives

Reflecting on their summer experiences, the SSFs gave long lists of highlights. Abigail Labella and Cara Manning said they learned techniques that most students wouldn’t learn until graduate school. Gar Secrist, who graduated from Maryville College in May, enjoyed WHOI’s rich intellectual atmosphere.

“I’ve been able to talk to my roommates and go to lectures," he said. "It's really exciting to see the broad range of things being worked on here.”

Most SSFs ended the summer with stronger ideas about their interests as scientists and their future career plans, as well as a keener sense of the state of our world’s oceans and humans’ relationship to them.

Being at Woods Hole “definitely has broadened my perspective on how interconnected things in oceanography are,” said Kantor. “You can study all kinds of processes that connect.”

“It has definitely been good to experience what working at a research institution is like,” said Zipper. “It’s maybe the most fun summer of my life so far.”

Summer Student Fellowships have been funded by the National Science Foundation, as well as by the U.S. Geological Survey, The John M. Alden Fund, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Fund for Summer Student Fellows, New England Farm & Garden Association, Inc., Exxon Mobil Upstream Research Company, The Christopher Haebler Frantz Fund, The AOP&E and G&G Alumni Fund, The Carl and Pancha Peterson Endowed Fund for Support of Summer Student Fellows, The Lawrason Riggs, III Memorial Fund, The Richard Vanstone Fund, The Homer Ewing Fund, The C. Russell Feldman Fund, The William D. Grant Fund, The Earl Hays Memorial Fund, The Noel McLean Fund, and The Virginia Walker Smith Fund.

Originally published: November 13, 2009