SURF’s up 2017: RI undergrads in research

Roberts_SkylerResearch fellow: Skyler Roberts
Hometown: West Bridgewater, MA
School: Roger Williams University
Majors: Marine Biology, Environmental Science

Heading into her junior year, Skyler Roberts had little experience working in a diagnostics research lab and none conducting molecular biology research.

But, last month, five weeks into her full-time, paid Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) with Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR, in the lab of Assistant Professor Roxanna Smolowitz, Roberts found herself thoroughly immersed in the study of bacteria — Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp) —  found in oysters.

“We’re trying to determine where in the oyster tissue the bacteria is residing,” explains Roberts. “If we can locate where the bacteria is living, we may be able to develop a method to flush it out.”

While this particular strain of bacteria is not pathogenic for oysters, it can infect humans who consume the oysters raw. These instances lead to the closure of estuaries for oyster harvest, often for significant periods during the most commercially profitable time of the year.

Skyler Roberts on a fish trawl
Skyler Roberts holds up a spiny dogfish shark before releasing it during a fish trawl last month with Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURFs) on the Cap’n Bert in Narragansett Bay.

Little work has been done to determine where Vp is found in the oyster tissues. Determining the location of Vp in the tissue will help address shellfish management planning, which seeks to understand the impacts of climate change on oyster culture and develop mitigation methods for shellfish management.

As part of her work on the project, Roberts says she is trying to stain the DNA of the bacteria without staining the tissues of the oyster to specifically identify the Vp location. She says she also has learned to conduct health checks on the oysters and other shellfish, determine whether they have the bacteria or show signs of other diseases, cut tissue samples, carry out the two-day protocol of staining the Vp DNA within oyster tissue, and examine research papers.

“I’ve learned more so far in the five weeks of SURF than in any of my classes,” says Roberts. “It’s so hands-on; this experience has been huge. Every day, I’m doing something different, learning new techniques, and using a lot of new instruments.

“I’m loving it! I’m learning more in the lab than in any classroom setting.”

Roberts says her marine biology major was a given when she headed to college, that she doesn’t remember if there was a time in her life when she didn’t want to do marine biology. Environmental science made sense as a second major because of the connection to climate change, and Roberts found a strong overlap with her studies. Looking ahead, she plans to go to graduate school, most likely for marine biology and research, but remains uncertain about what speciality she might pursue.

“It’s exciting,” Roberts says of research. “There’s failure, trial and error, not having a protocol work. But, it’s good for me to learn. Nothing is easy!”

Roberts will present her 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