SURF’s up 2017: RI undergrads in research

“The experience lets you know basically how scientists operate, what it’s like to do research. It’s something that needs to be experienced firsthand to get an idea of what is involved.”

Costa_SamuelResearch fellow: Samuel Costa
Hometown: Coventry, RI
School: University of Rhode Island
Major; minor: Biological Sciences; Chemistry

For Samuel Costa, a rising senior in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS), figuring out what he wants to do has been a serendipitous mix of intuition and chance.

He arrived at the University of Rhode Island as a Biology major, but switched to Biological Sciences, finding himself drawn to the in-depth focus on science. Though interested primarily in zoology growing up, he soon discovered that the more he learned about biology, the more he enjoyed exploring the structural aspect of the discipline.

“It was just a matter of the classes that I took,” reflects Costa, who says he has been interested in the life sciences from a young age. “For example, I took anatomy as an elective for my major and ended up really liking it. I took physiology and I liked that as well.”

Sam Costa on a fish trawl
Sam Costa holds up spider crabs from a fish trawl with Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows before returning them to Narragansett Bay.

Figuring out his direction evolved from learning about biological structures and how systems work, he says: “At the same time, I was very interested in going out and doing fieldwork. Being out in nature was something that interested me, and I also like doing lab work. What I mostly was interested in was finding a way to blend these two together.”

Midway through his 10-week Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) with Assistant Professor Matthew Bertin, College of Pharmacy, Costa says the experience has helped him define even further where his interests lie — natural products science. The SURF project he joined, “Utilizing metabolomics to identify emerging toxins in benthic freshwater cyanobacteria,” aims to further understanding of emerging sources of harmful algal bloom toxins in freshwater systems.

“I didn’t even know that there was a name for it,” he notes, referring to natural products science field. “I didn’t realize until I got involved with Dr. Bertin’s project that this is very much related to what I want to do.”

Studying a species of cyanobacteria, the source of harmful algal blooms, the lab is investigating whether the toxins produced might be effective in fighting cancer cells. Costa, who found the SURF program through the URI Undergraduate Research Society, says his lab work involves testing fractions of cell cultures to gauge how they respond to the toxins.

“It’s been very interesting,” Costa says of the full-time, hands-on research. “It’s really been an exposure to what it’s like to work in the field and carrying out procedures in the lab, taking care of cultures and even reading the literature. It’s been a very informative experience.”

The summer fellowship offered Costa his first time to work in a lab and he says the program provides a significant taste of what life as a scientist might be like: “The experience lets you know basically how scientists operate, what it’s like to do research. It’s something that needs to be experienced firsthand to get an idea of what is involved.”

Costa will present his research findings Friday, July 28, at the University of Rhode Island, along with other Rhode Island university and college students at the 10th Annual RI SURF Conference. The annual event marks the culmination of the SURF program, which this year involved 24 RI NSF EPSCoR students and 99 from the Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (RI-INBRE).

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle