Tuesday, May 27, 2014

During the spring semester, the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) was host to the undergraduate program “Semester by the Sea”. This program allows undergraduates from the University of Texas at Austin (UT) to come down to Port Aransas for a semester to take marine science courses and perform independent research in a faculty member’s lab. As a Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) funded consortium, DROPPS is always looking for ways to incorporate GoMRI legacy goals. One of these goals is to inform and train future scientists and engineers. DROPPS participation in Semester by the Sea does just that. Students are placed into specific labs based on their research interests. As a result of this selection process, DROPPS had three students participate in the program: Sara Garcia, Andrew Kang, and Donald Flynn.
DROPPS Semester by the Sea students (L to R): Andrew Kang, Sara Garcia, and Donald Flynn
Sara is currently a junior at UT, majoring in marine science and business foundations. She was selected to work in DROPPS consortium director Dr. Ed Buskey’s lab and was mentored by DROPPS Research Associate Dr. Brad Gemmell. Sara was initially interested in joining an oil spill science lab because her family works in the oil and gas industry. She has a strong interest in how human-caused impacts, such as oil spills, affect the environment. Her independent research project looked at the impact that oil, dispersant, and oil+dispersant had on the swimming behavior of barnacle nauplii. Sara found that crude oil and oil+dispersant had a negative impact on the swimming velocity of the nauplii, but she did not find this same effect using dispersant alone. In addition to performing research in the lab, Sara was able to assist with numerous DROPPS outreach activities including school visits and science nights.          
Sara Garcia participates in a DROPPS outreach event. 
When speaking about her experience with DROPPS, Sara had the following to say: 
“Working in the lab this semester was both exciting and rewarding. I really enjoyed learning different lab techniques, software, and how to formulate and analyze data. It was a great opportunity to be able to learn from and be supported by a knowledgeable community. Also, being able to do outreach opportunities locally has been a fun and an interactive opportunity to share what I'm learning.”
Andrew Kang presents his research during the Semester by the Sea Research Symposium.
Andrew is a senior at UT. He worked in the lab of Dr. Zhanfei Liu, a DROPPS Co-PI, and was co-mentored by DROPPS Post-doctoral Fellow Dr. Hernando Bacosa and Research Scientist Jiqing Liu. Andrew wanted to perform research in an oil spill lab because he thought it would be important to contribute to a collective effort on understanding the effects of oil spills. Andrew studied the bacterial breakdown of n-alkanes compounds in crude oil. Andrew looked at the degradation rate in three different concentrations of oil.  The most interesting thing he found was that the bacteria were still very effective in degrading the oil even though the oil was present at high concentrations. Like Sara, Andrew enjoyed his lab experience immensely and had the following to say:
“I worked with a number of knowledgeable, amiable, and helpful scientists in the lab. These people helped and guided me along the way so that I can understand and know what I was doing. My mentor, Dr. Zhanfei Liu, provided me with a mindset to approach my research so that I could enjoy and be confident in what I was doing.”
Donald Flynn gives his presentation during the Semester by the Sea Research Symposium.
Donald is currently a junior at UT. He worked in DROPPS Co-PI Dr. Deana Erdner’s lab and was also mentored Dr. Hernando Bacosa. While not initially interested in working in an oil spill lab, by the end of the semester he was glad he did. Donald is originally from New Orleans, LA, so researching the impacts that the Deepwater Horizon spill had on the environment hit close to home. Donald investigated the effects of two toxic hydrocarbons on the phytoplankton species Alexandrium tamarense.  He found that the phytoplankton was more resilient to toxins when associated with natural bacteria assemblages.  Donald also had great things to say about his experience:
I got to work with very talented post docs and professors that helped me learn a wide variety of skills in the laboratory. I got to work with various chemicals and appliances, and develop my abilities as a researcher far more than I expected to in just one semester. Most of all I got the thrill of seeing my hard work in the laboratory lead to some very interesting and meaningful results."
DROPPS participation in Semester by the Sea was a huge success. The students found interesting results and gained hands-on experiences in the scientific method. Additionally, all three students said that as result of their experience, they are now interested in going to graduate school and pursuing scientific research as a career. Sara and Andrew will be continuing their projects this summer when they come back to Port Aransas to take summer courses. The Semester by the Sea program gave out a national travel meeting award and a regional travel meeting award to the students who excelled in their research and presentations. Sara was awarded the national travel meeting award and Andrew was awarded the regional travel meeting award. The consortium is proud of these three DROPPSters and we look forward to seeing where their scientific futures will take them.