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Students in front of posters

Undergrad research makes waves at ocean sciences meeting

BY Ker Than
ClockMarch 05, 2014

Three Stanford undergraduate students joined thousands of ocean scientists in Honolulu last month to present their research at the biannual American Geophysical Union Ocean Sciences Meeting.

It was their first time attending a professional scientific conference for Claire Zabel, Caroline Ferguson, and Walter Torres.

Torres, a junior in the Earth Systems program, said he was excited "to see all the research going on across all disciplines in the ocean sciences."

Zabel said it opened her eyes to new research opportunities. “I had the chance to learn about new topics from the top scholars in the field, which has definitely shown me how many exciting questions there are to study,” said Zabel, a senior who is also in the Earth Systems program.

Ferguson, a senior in the Program in Human Biology, said there were not enough hours in the day to take full advantage of all the conference had to offer. "There was so much to do and see, so many scientists I want to meet and hear from but not enough hours in the day," she said.

From the Arctic to the tropics

The students presented results from research projects they conducted with faculty and graduate student mentors in the School of Earth Sciences. Ferguson worked with Prof. Kevin Arrigo, in the department of Environmental Earth System Science, and members of his lab to culture two species of phytoplankton–Phaeocystis antarctica and Fragilariopsis cylindrus–that were collected during a research cruise in Antarctica's Southern Ocean. She subjected the cultures to different light conditions to determine whether the microscopic marine organisms would respond, and if so, to what degree. Zabel and Torres worked with Rob Dunbar, Stanford's W.M. Keck Professor of Earth Science, and David Koweek, a doctoral candidate in Dunbar's lab, to study corals and other marine organisms around the islands of Palmyra and Palau, respectively.

The three students were among more than 30 undergraduates who conducted research on a broad range of topics as part of the School of Earth Sciences Undergraduate Research (SESUR) Program. Prior to presenting at the Oceans Sciences Meeting, Zabel, Ferguson, and Torres shared their findings through poster and oral presentations at Stanford in December.

Other students in the program used the opportunity to study water supplies, agricultural practices, solar energy, earthquakes, and other topics in Earth, energy and environmental sciences. (Read related story: “From water supplies to solar energy, undergrads present a year’s worth of research”)

Research on the cutting edge

SESUR co-director Richard Nevle likened the program to angel investing. “Rather than investing in startups, we’re investing in people,” he said. “We have students who are deeply interested both in learning about how the Earth operates and about what it means to contribute to research at the highest level. The funding, advising, and mentorship that our program provides enables students to rigorously explore questions at the cutting edge of our faculty’s research interests.”

In many undergraduate science courses, the information taught is backed by broad scientific agreement and the mechanisms are well understood, said Koweek, who mentored Zabel and Torres. Real science is rarely so neat. "When you're doing research, it's the exact opposite," Koweek said. "By definition, you're trying to make a new contribution to a pool of knowledge, and that forces you to grapple with questions and issues. How do you know if you're right or wrong? What happens if you go to a site and your field instruments break, or the electrical power goes down? What if your data don’t support your hypothesis? What do you do then?"

Koweek believes undergraduates who are exposed to the challenges and rewards of conducting real science make better informed decisions about whether they want to become professional scientists. "I think it's really important for undergraduates to have opportunities when they go to these meetings to present their own work, receive scientific feedback, and engage in the process of scientific discourse," he said. "That's really how you learn and grow as a scientist.”

For some students, the opportunity provided by the School’s research program can be personally transformative, Nevle said, “particularly as students identify deep intellectual passions and begin to see themselves as real scientists making valuable contributions to the Earth and environmental sciences.”

For example, Arrigo said that Ferguson’s research “provides another critical piece of the puzzle concerning how phytoplankton are able to thrive in seemingly inhospitable polar oceans.” 

Arrigo was so impressed by Ferguson’s work that he invited her to participate in his team’s upcoming research cruises in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Simon Klemperer, a professor of geophysics who also co-directs SESUR, said undergraduates are as important to his research projects as PhD students. “The undergrads are part of the continuum of creating new knowledge,” Klemperer said.

Ker Than is the associate director of communications for the Stanford School of Earth Sciences.

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