Mentors for Budding Scientists
Young students get a taste of research at WHOI
For the fourth consecutive year, local high school students interested in science spent part of their summer vacations working on projects undertaken with Delia Oppo’s lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. This year, they teamed up to reconstruct the last 13,000 years of a crucial ocean circulation phenomenon.
The ten students, from Falmouth Academy, Falmouth High School, and Sandwich High School, tracked changes in upwelling near the Galápagos Islands by counting the shells of tiny planktonic creatures that had been recovered from a sediment core.
“The work the kids do is real,” said Oppo, a paleooceanographer at WHOI. “They’re generating data to answer questions that we don’t know the answer to.”
Oppo started the Climate Summer Internship Program in 2009 with Joanne Muller, a former WHOI postdoctoral scientist who was teaching at the academy, to give students experience doing research. The academy provided the space and microscopes and the WHOI Ocean and Climate Change Institute provided funding for other equipment and small stipends for the students and Muller.
The program had seven participants in its first year. In 2012, Oppo had to turn away two students because the program only had enough space and microscopes for ten.
“This year was the most we ever had,” she said. “We had to hunt down microscopes, actually, and take them from my lab.”
For one week this past July, the students met in a lab at Falmouth Academy every morning for a half-hour lecture and a few hours of work at the microscope. Their project focused on waters near the Galápagos Islands, where cold, nutrient-rich water upwells from great depths to near the ocean’s surface. Upwelling around the Galápagos is more pronounced when easterly winds are strong, for example during La Niña periods of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. If you can tell when upwelling occurred and when it didn’t, you can sketch a history of equatorial winds, which might relate to ENSO phases during the same time.
The students got a glimpse of past episodes of upwelling by looking for the shells of foraminifera, or forams, single-celled organisms that lived in the ocean, fell to the seafloor after they died, and were embedded in a sediment core recently extracted by scientists.
Each student was given sieved samples of foram shells, a microscope, and a counting device for recording the total number of forams and the number of the species called Globigerina bulloides. This species lives near the surface and has a strong preference for cold, nutrient-rich water, making it an excellent indicator for upwelling.
This was the first year Oppo’s interns studied the forams from the Galápagos area. In 2009, the group generated a record of upwelling from the Indonesian seas, which they related to monsoon winds. The 2010 students produced a record of icebergs carried to the subpolar North Atlantic by counting the number of small rocks that had been delivered to the sediment core site by icebergs. Those classes produced original findings that Oppo and Muller are still pursuing. They also started at least one student on her own path into scientific research.
“The first year we actually had a student ask if she could work for us,” said Oppo. “She ended up doing a science fair project with me, and ended up with a first prize in the state, and was one of eight students in Massachusetts who was invited to give a talk in a special session at the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] meeting in D.C.” She is now an undergraduate at Yale.
The interns aren’t the only ones to benefit from the program. This year’s students were taught by WHOI postdoctoral fellow Jennifer Arbuszewski, who welcomed the opportunity to plan and prepare the lectures and supervise the lab work.
“For Jenny it was a good opportunity to teach,” said Oppo. “And not only to teach, but also to develop the course materials. She put together all the presentations.”
Arbuszewski’s lectures covered the ENSO system, foraminifera, sediment cores, anthropogenic climate change, and paleoclimate. After the students finished their work on Thursday, she graphed their results and presented them for discussion by the group on Friday.
Their data showed periods of upwelling alternating with periods without upwelling, consistent with results from other sources. It also revealed an extended and massive upwelling several thousand years ago, an unexpected finding that underscored for the students that they had done genuine research and not just a lab exercise.
“A lot of them seemed excited about the results, and that there was a story there,” said Arbuszewski. “All the kinks aren’t worked out yet, but there’s definitely something in their results that’s pretty interesting.”
Internship Pairs Scientists and Students
WHOI scientist/FA teacher plays matchmaker
By Tucker Clark
Falmouth Academy has established an internship program with scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The program requires students in grades 9 to 12 to apply to their chemistry, physics or biology teacher for the chance to work in the laboratory of a WHOI scientist for up to 12 hours a week after school. Each internship runs for one trimester.
“These unpaid positions offer our students valuable research experience beyond what they can achieve through the very valuable mentored science fair projects that are already facilitated between our students and local researchers,” said Virginia Edgcomb, a microbial ecologist at WHOI who also teaches life science and taekwondo at Falmouth Academy.
Edgcomb initiated the internship program last fall. She coordinates the program by establishing the initial contacts and expectations, arranging training for students in lab safety, and checking with the scientists and the students throughout each internship.
“The Woods Hole research community is a tremendous resource, and I thought these internships would be great opportunities for motivated students to get a realistic perspective on working in or running a science laboratory,” said Edgcomb. “The program is also an entry point for FA students into the local scientific community, and another way for them to build professional connections in their area of interest.”
At the end of its first year, the WHOI/FA program got high points from both students and scientists. “The scientists have been extraordinarily generous with their time and experience. They have also been delighted with the Falmouth Academy students,” said Edgcomb.
Three academy students were the initial WHOI interns, one each in physics, chemistry, and biology. They performed a wide range of functions ranging from day-to-day laboratory maintenance and data management to assisting with ongoing experimental work.
Justin Waller, who graduated from Falmouth Academy in June, worked for eight weeks after school in the lab of senior WHOI engineer Ben Allen and with Reed Christenson, a research engineer. Justin worked on a few projects and was particularly interested in inspecting one of the lab’s autonomous underwater vehicles used for investigating the aqueducts beneath New York City.
“The internship gave me a feel for the lab set-up and a much better sense of the field of engineering and computer science itself,” said Waller. “I learned a lot about the individual parts of the robots the engineers work on, and I met a lot of good people.”
“Having Justin in my lab was phenomenal,” said Allen. “He worked primarily with me building a data table of heading sensor comparisons, but he also worked with two other engineers in the lab. He was very clear in his communications, and very willing to work. Ginny [Dr. Edgcomb] knows the WHOI scientists and the FA students, so she makes sure that the matches are great. Yes, I invested a lot of time, but I gained two great things: I worked with a young student who is energetic, and he did real work.”
The WHOI scientists write an evaluation of each student’s performance and potential to succeed in science, which the interns may include in their college applications.
Freshman Alec Cobban worked with Joan Bernhard and Dave Beaudoin in the WHOI Geology and Geophysics Department four afternoons a week. “They trained me in pretty much everything, including how to set up the gradients, stain the organisms, and do microscopy work,” said Cobban. Using sediment samples collected during a WHOI cruise led by Edgcomb last fall, he studied microbes that live without oxygen in brine lakes on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.
“It was the first time I worked with scientists like this,” said Cobban. “It was a lot of work, especially at first when I was trying to figure it out and learn the protocols, but I had fun and am absolutely glad I did it. In the WHOI lab we figured out why things happen, and we discovered new things. If we had a new idea, we could change the protocol. It’s real-life science.”
Senior Dan Sakakini worked with Daniel J. Repeta in the WHOI Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department. Repeta trained Sakakini to do phosphorus analysis of seawater, a time-consuming task because it was important that the intern reach a good level of accuracy in the measurement. Then they measured organic phosphorus produced by different types of algae and bacteria.
“I very much enjoyed working with Dan,” said Repeta. “One particularly rewarding aspect for me was to see him take what he had learned in the classroom and integrate it to what we were doing in the lab. Sometimes these were fairly trivial, such as weighing out reagents to prepare for an analysis, but often he would take more advanced concepts of how atoms, molecules, and compounds behave and apply them to our work. It was a lot of fun for both of us. I also think the experience allowed him to appreciate how difficult research can be—how often things can go wrong and the work needed to right them.”
Sakakini agreed. “It was amazing to be able to apply what I had learned in chemistry and pre-calculus the day before to approach Dr. Repeta’s research from a new direction. The internship gave me a much deeper understanding of the importance of chemistry in our everyday lives, as well as a new insight into the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the people who work there. I consider Dr. Repeta an inspiring friend and mentor.
“I also had the opportunity to work with several of his international graduate students, which gave me further insight into the different stages of a chemist’s career. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity!” he said.
Tucker Clark is assistant to headmaster David Faus at Falmouth Academy.
Originally published: August 31, 2012