SURF’s up 2016: RI undergrads in research

Borbee_ErinResearch fellow: Erin Borbee
Hometown: Burlington, MA
School: Roger Williams University
Majors: Marine Biology, Chemistry
Mentor: Koty Sharp
Project: Approaching a holistic understanding of coral bleaching: Using the coral A. poculata to understand how the coral microbiome is influenced by Symbiodinium

RWU senior Erin Borbee says she figured out early on what career she intended to pursue.

“I wrote in my fifth grade yearbook that I wanted to be a marine biologist,” she says, standing amid the bubbling tanks in the Roger Williams University wet lab.

The job sounds a little out of place in a family of accountants, concedes Borbee, but she notes that she read a lot of National Geographic magazines as a child.

Last summer, Borbee earned her first Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) award and spent the 10-week fellowship working in the lab of Associate Professor Steven Irvine, University of Rhode Island, investigating the impact of climate change on sea squirts. She says she appreciated the opportunity through SURF to experience a different campus and meet other students.

“I’ve learned a lot of skills and I’m learning to be more independent. It’s not like you’re in a classroom lab. There is a lot of work to do and you do it on your own.”

Borbee started working with RWU Assistant Professor Koty Sharp last semester and is continuing in her lab for this year’s SURF experience. The project focuses on the local coral Astrangia poculata, and more specifically the bacteria associated with the coral.

Corals exhibit a multi-partner symbiosis with both bacteria and algae, but the relationships between the partners are not fully understood. With coral bleaching becoming a growing concern in many reef ecosystems, A. poculata serves as a model organism for studying these relationships because of its the ability to survive both with and without its algal symbiont, unlike many tropical corals.

For her part, Borbee says, she has helped collect specimens from Fort Wetherill in Jamestown, and maintained them in the lab for research. She is currently using DNA sequencing analysis and molecular biology to develop new techniques that will characterize what types of bacteria are in these corals, and determine how those bacteria might be affecting the health and survival of the host coral.

“I’ve learned a lot of skills and I’m learning to be more independent,” Borbee says of the experience. “It’s not like you’re in a classroom lab. There is a lot of work to do and you do it on your own. It really helps with your confidence and it’s helping confirm that I want to do marine biology research.”

As she looks ahead to graduation next spring, Borbee says she hopes to move onto graduate school and continue to explore research opportunities.

Story and photo by Amy Dunkle