CELS undergrad investigates impacts of climate change on sea squirts


Research fellow: Evelyn Siler
Hometown: Hopkinton, RI
School: University of Rhode Island
Major: Cell and Molecular Biology; Biochemistry concentration

On a recent cold and overcast morning, Evelyn Siler, a rising senior in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences(CELS), stretched out on a Snug Harbor dock and hung over the side to collect sea squirts that had attached themselves to the pilings.

“I’m glad the rain held off,” she said, smiling, as she got ready to plunge her arm into the choppy water. “But, I think we’re still going to get wet.”

Working in the lab of URI Associate Professor Steven Irvine, Siler, one of 24 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows(SURFs) with Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR this summer, is helping investigate how Ciona intestinalis, commonly known as sea squirts, cope with the impacts of climate change.

“We’re testing their viability as embryos under different temperatures and levels of acidity and salinity,” Siler explains. “We’re also going to be growing up adults at different temperatures and testing how their offspring survive under the stress of the conditions.”

The overarching question is whether the Ciona, which look like gelatinous, tubular blobs, can deal with the stresses imposed by climate change. Additionally, Siler says, the sea squirts hold great value for study because research conducted on the DNA of these simple organisms can enhance our understanding of the more complicated genomes of vertebrates: “Ciona, in particular, share many genes with vertebrate organisms so they provide an excellent model for studies of gene expression.”

Siler started her research work in the Irvine lab last summer as a CELS Coastal Fellow and continued during the academic year, earning independent research credit. She says she also took advantage of SURF opportunities last summer, including attending a science communication workshop and touring the Endeavor, a research vessel owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the URI Graduate School of Oceanography.

“The hands-on component is super important. I needed to actually do it and understand it to know if this was what I wanted to do for a career.”

Siler traces her interest in science to her high school Advanced Placement biology teacher, Kathryn Sagamang, who celebrated her students’ acceptance into college by hanging their school flags in the classroom. Still, science wasn’t Siler’s first choice.

“I actually applied to URI as a business major because I wasn’t sure what I could do with science, but I saw a sign for Cell and Molecular Biology at orientation and switched my major,” she laughs. “Every class that I take, I’m in love with it. Every day is fascinating.”

Planning for a December graduation, Siler has her sights set on research and applying to Ph.D. programs. She says she always has been interested in disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease and autism, and the opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate has confirmed for her that she is on the right path:

“The hands-on component is super important — doing things like cell culture, DNA work, and dissections. I needed to actually do it and understand it to know if this was what I wanted to do for a career. I’m really grateful for the opportunities. After doing research for about a year now, I can say this is definitely what I want to do.”… [Read more]

Story and photo by Amy Dunkle