O’Brien moves through the molecular biology lab with the ease of a seasoned professional, confidently describing the operation of complex machines and demonstrating techniques for extracting DNA and culturing cells.
The samples and reagents she works with are invisible to the eye, but the lab in the Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences is a rainbow of colors, from O’Brien’s bright blue rubber gloves and orange fingernails—freshly painted the night before during what she called a “girls night in”—to stacks of small yellow, green, and purple boxes containing pipette tips. Her language is equally colorful, an entertaining mix of good-natured ribbing with grad students and scientific terminology sure to confuse most non-scientists.
Having just completed her sophomore year studying marine biology, it’s somewhat surprising how easily she fits in with the professors and doctoral students she works side-by-side with all summer. But she isn’t a typical college student. O’Brien started conducting biological research as a high school junior in Milwaukee, collaborating with scientists from the Great Lakes Water Institute for two years on a study of invasive zebra and quagga mussels in Lake Michigan. With a wealth of research experience since then, she expects that her third peer-reviewed research paper will be published before the end of her junior year.
She is particularly proud of her selection for two of the nation’s most prestigious scholarships—the Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship for the study of science and engineering—neither of which she thinks she would have received were it not for the assistance she received from URI’s National Scholarship Office.
Yet she almost didn’t even apply to URI. “My mom and I did a road trip tour of colleges up and down the East Coast, 15 schools in nine days, and URI wasn’t on the list,” she recalled. “But we added it after liking the University of Vermont, and URI turned out to be my favorite campus. It just felt right. Then I got a Centennial Scholarship, and that sealed the deal.”
When she arrived on campus, she immediately began applying for research internships, scoring her first one as a summer fellow with a professor at Brown University studying the population genetics of barnacles. Later she connected with Chris Lane, a new professor in the URI Department of Biological Sciences, who studies the genomics of algae.
“I started working with him almost on his first day,” O’Brien said. “I had the experience; his research was something I knew I could jump right into, and I knew that I could go in and feel comfortable talking with him about it.”
Together with several graduate students, O’Brien is sequencing the mitochondrial genome of a common red alga, Polysiphonia, and its closely related parasite, Chorecolax.
“It’s unique that a host and its parasite are so closely related,” explained O’Brien. “When you see differences in the genome between the two, you can understand how the parasite evolved from the host or from a close relative of the host. It’s a good model system that might help us learn about the evolution of parasitism in organisms that cause diseases like malaria.”
“Megan is one of the most scientifically advanced undergraduate students I have worked with, particularly realizing that she just completed her sophomore year,” said Lane. “In many ways she has the depth of understanding typical of beginning graduate students and the curiosity that pushes her to answer questions put before her.”
When most of her fellow students were catching up on their sleep and steering clear of research and schoolwork during the winter break last year, O’Brien spent Christmas, New Year’s, and every other day of her vacation aboard a research ship off Panama and Costa Rica studying the distribution of zooplankton in an area where oxygen levels are quite low. Working for Oceanography Professor Karen Wishner, she deployed and retrieved nets; collected samples of jellyfish, shrimp, krill and other tiny marine organisms; and analyzed samples under a microscope.
“The best part of the whole trip was being stuck on a ship for 30 days with 25 other scientists,” she said. “There were older scientists, new grad students, and everything in between, and it was great to interact with them, hear about their individual projects, and see how my work was part of a much larger project. There’s nothing like eating, sleeping, and working with scientists 24 hours a day.”
Although O’Brien may sound like she is consumed by her research, she has actually had a well-rounded experience at URI. In addition to being an active member of the University’s Outing Club and Irish Step Dancing Club, she competes in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle events for the varsity women’s swimming team. She is also a member of the rowing team, which she surprisingly describes as a very similar sport to swimming.
“They both require a similar mentality, they involve the full body, and the race pace is really similar,” she said. “Best of all, the seasons are opposite so I can do them both.”
When she learned last spring that she had been awarded both the Hollings and Goldwater Scholarships, O’Brien didn’t realize the impact they would have on her future.
“You don’t really realize that you’re pretty good until you’re stacked up against the nation’s best, so I didn’t expect to get either scholarship,” admitted O’Brien. “When I found out I got the Goldwater, I couldn’t wait to call my parents. When the Hollings came soon after that, then I knew that my hard work had a real payout.”
What she didn’t know was that the orientation session for Hollings Scholarship winners would open a new career direction.
“I used to think that I wanted to be a professor, but then I got introduced to NOAA. Now I think I’d like to work in a federal government organization like that. There’s a need to find solutions for lawmakers, coastal managers, citizens, recreational fishers, where there is a direct human benefit from scientific research. The oceans are so vast—they’re less explored than the moon—so there’s plenty of exploration to undertake and issues to take on.
By Todd McLeish
Photos by Nora Lewis and Chris Lane.