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Extracting Experience: Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program

By Raul Flamenco, Environmental Biology, California Polytechnic University, Pomona

This summer I participated in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with Mystic Aquarium and University of Connecticut, Avery Point. It was a unique chance to work on a research project in oceanography in an immersive way for ten weeks.

Before the program even started, I decided to make my life more difficult -but interesting- by taking a series of trains across the country from Los Angeles, CA to Mystic, CT. That was my first time on an extended train trip as well as my first time in Connecticut. I saw parts of the country I hadn’t seen before and had time to read papers related to my project.

The goal of my research project was to quantify the levels of pesticides and mercury in stranded harbor seal tissues. I was able to utilize the database and tissue bank of stranded seals that Mystic Aquarium has going back over the last eight years.  Mystic Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program responds and rescues marine mammals and sea turtles in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Fisher’s Island, NY.  If seals are found dead on the beach or don’t make it through rehabilitation, a full necropsy is carried out and tissues are sampled for analyses to find out the cause of death and for archiving for future research application.

Given the changing environment I wanted to measure pesticides and mercury in the tissues of seals through the years to see what the levels are and to note any changes through time.  Having been taught by my research mentor, Dr. Penny Vlahos, to use gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, a method to identify concentrations of various chemicals, I set up an extraction method in the lab to draw out the pesticides.

This research technique, given my interests is a unique and valuable skill that I gained during this program that will help me be successful in graduate school. 
My favorite part of the program was the poster session that was held at Mystic Aquarium. All eight of us REU students set up posters around the main floor of the aquarium in order to share the essentials of our projects with Aquarium guests. It was a great lesson on how to change our language and phrasing to better suit our varied audience. I taught both a five-year old and a grandmother about biomagnification – each in a different way. It is important to share research results with the public in a digestible manner as to not turn them off from science.
One of my biggest takeaways from my time in the REU Program is that research projects don’t always go according to plan. Various times throughout my work, things went wrong.  I had some issues with equipment malfunctioning. The filtration set up didn’t filter the extract well. I ran out of silica gel for filtration and then ordered the wrong type of silica gel. The methods I found worked differently for fish than with seals. I often found myself stressing out during those times. It helped to take a deep breath and think about how to solve the problem within the timeframe and with the resources available to me. I often had to ask for help but people were always willing to lend a hand or advice.  

Throughout the duration of the program I often found myself out of my comfort zone, but I believe that’s important for growth. In order to change and become better, we need to be challenged. I was often challenged this summer and have grown from those experiences.

This program helped me get a better idea about what lab work is like and confirmed for me that I’m getting into the right field. I realized I should not limit myself by focusing on one idea or project. New opportunities will arise and if you work hard on a topic you are passionate about, things tend to work out. I am pursuing a PhD in Ecotoxicology and will be applying to programs over the next few months. I am grateful to all the people involved with making this program possible, such as Dr. Michael Finiguerra and Dr. Tracy Romano, as well as the National Science Foundation. To undergraduates contemplating lab work or graduate school, I would definitely recommend applying to REUs. 

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