Research Experience for Undergraduates: A Summer Like No Other

It's 6:35 on a gray July morning on the northern California coast.chilly, 52 degrees. A dense fog envelops the bluffs and jagged coastline below. Monolithic waves crash with merciless fury, driving even the stalwart harbor seals to search for cover. Sea spray and salt air sting my face like a caustic reminder of nature's wrath, while the eerie sound of a distant foghorn haunts the soul. Though this may seem like the setting for a chilling murder mystery, it's actually the start of a typical day for a Bodega Marine Lab REU student collecting sea urchins from the tide pools of the Pacific Ocean.

Figure 1. REU students at lunch beside the outdoor mesocosm at the Bodega Marine Lab. Courtesy: Cameron Coates.

Figure 1. REU students at lunch beside the outdoor mesocosm at the Bodega Marine Lab. Courtesy: Cameron Coates.

I cannot imagine a more effective way of actualizing my awe of science and nature than the summer research fellowships I participated in my sophomore and junior years of college. Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), a program funded by the National Science Foundation, gives motivated students from around the nation the opportunity to enter the world of scientific research and sample life as a graduate student.

Research Experiences for Undergraduates

REUs offer undergraduates opportunities in a wide variety of scientific fields, from astronomy to ocean sciences. I first learned of the program through my home institution, the University of Delaware. After I expressed my interest in attending graduate school, my advisor Doug Miller, professor of biological oceanography at the university's College of Marine Studies (CMS), recommended our school's REU program.

Figure 2. REU intern Jackie O'Riley collecting barnacles. Courtesy: Chris Harley.

Figure 2. REU intern Jackie O'Riley collecting barnacles. Courtesy: Chris Harley.

"A research experience like the REU is a must have' for students interested in graduate school," he said. "Through the lab work, field sampling and informal interactions, interns get a sense for the level of aptitude, skill and dedication required to succeed in graduate school."

At each REU site, ten students are mentored by research scientists throughout the summer. The most significant feature of the experience is the opportunity to design and execute an original research project. Students work one-on-one with faculty and gain insights into the scientific process and the creativity and patience needed to carry out a successful experiment – valuable skills that are often best acquired outside classroom laboratories.

Figure 3. REU intern Cirse Gonzalez examining microscopic invertebrates. Courtesy: Ely Huerta.

Figure 3. REU intern Cirse Gonzalez examining microscopic invertebrates. Courtesy: Ely Huerta.

Even more rewarding, in my opinion, is the sense of wonder that I experience when conducting such research. The idea that there is no predetermined answer that I am "supposed" to get and working in an environment where I am encouraged to pursue my own hunches and curiosities is largely what led me to fall in love with science.

In addition to research activities, students participate in weekly workshops and seminars on topics ranging from science ethics to public speaking. Scientists also give talks throughout the summer, encouraging students to broaden their horizons, learning more about other areas of research in their fields.

Benefits of Participation in REU

After I completed my internship at CMS in summer 2004, I was fortunate enough to be granted a second REU at the Bodega Marine Lab (BML) of the University of California-Davis this past summer. Having never been to the west coast before, this has been the best experience of my life. Participation in the REU program is an excellent way to explore research in new environments, both academically and geographically.

Figure 4. REU intern Abigail Bradley returning from organism collecting. Courtesy: Bre Harris.

Figure 4. REU intern Abigail Bradley returning from organism collecting. Courtesy: Bre Harris.

For Bre Harris, a student from Ohio University, the REU program at BML has allowed her to: "finally get to study the organism I've been fascinated with since I was nine years old – sharks!"

Because of the cohesiveness of the program, students also tend to develop valuable collegial relationships and close friendships with one another.

BML-REU intern Rachael Dickey of McDaniel College in Maryland comments: "The best part of my experience has been meeting other students whose interests and aspirations are similar to mine."

Figure 5. REU intern Bre Harris after catching a smooth hound shark. Courtesy: Wes Dowd.

Figure 5. REU intern Bre Harris after catching a smooth hound shark. Courtesy: Wes Dowd.

Yet, arguably the most important aspect of all, and the mission of REU, is the experience of finding out whether or not a career in scientific research is for you.

"It's hard work!" says BML-REU student Dan Swezey of the University of California at Santa Barbara. "You've definitely got to be committed to be a scientist on this level – willing to be constantly busy, changing and adapting."

Figure 6. BML-REU students on Salmon Creek Beach. Courtesy: Matt Bracken.

Figure 6. BML-REU students on Salmon Creek Beach. Courtesy: Matt Bracken.

Most REU students continue on to graduate school and to pursue careers in research or other areas of science. Nevertheless, according to Jarrett Byrnes, a former REU intern and one of my research mentors at BML: "Even if students do not end up in the sciences, the skills and self-reliance learned in an REU program serve them well as they engage in any post-college endeavor."

Finding and Applying for an REU Fellowship

Competition is stiff for a fellowship. Many REU sites receive over a hundred applications from highly qualified individuals and are only able to accept ten. Previous research experience is helpful, but most important is the attempt to match students to advisors with similar research interests. Successful applicants will have expressed enthusiastic interest in the scientific research present at their choice institution. This is accomplished through completion of relevant coursework, strong essays and letters of recommendation.

Figure 7. REU students coaxing sharks into a seine in Bodega Harbor. Courtesy: Ely Huerta.

Figure 7. REU students coaxing sharks into a seine in Bodega Harbor. Courtesy: Ely Huerta.

"The experience is very rewarding to any budding scientist and it is well worth the effort it takes to apply!" says CMS-REU intern Lindsey Holm of Humboldt State University in California.

A grant from the National Science Foundation provides support for REU students through stipends of approximately $3,500 for nine to ten weeks during the summer. Travel and housing expenses are also covered.

Figure 8. Bodega Marine Lab. Courtesy: Abigail Bradley.

Figure 8. Bodega Marine Lab. Courtesy: Abigail Bradley.

REU sites are located at institutions around the nation. Applications for summer 2006 are generally due in mid-February. For more information and to search for a site, click here. Specific information on the REU programs at the Delaware College of Marine Studies and the Bodega Marine Lab can be found here and here, respectively.

JYI has a science journalism program, which trains undergraduates how to write news and feature articles about science and about how to communicate effectively to the public.
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