SURF’s up 2017: RI undergrads in research

“Now, I’m more excited and more willing to learn. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy or proud with what I’ve done with my work as I am now.”

Barrett_BrooksResearch fellow: Brooks Barrett
Hometown: Rockport, MA
School: Roger Williams University
Major; minor: Marine Biology; Environmental Science (core concentration in Global Communications)

Brooks Barrett’s original plan for her summer was intentionally no plan.

“I wanted an internship for the summer,” she says, “so, I picked out ones that were diverse in my interests. With my major and minor and core concentration, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But, I had a sense of what I like and don’t like.”

As it turns out, having no plan was the best plan of all.

Ultimately, Barrett’s choices came down to three distinct choices and she landed in a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) with Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR at The Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

“I hadn’t experienced anything like this,” she says. “It really taps into all of my interests — science, art, communication.”

The project with mentors Neal Overstrom, RISD Nature Lab director, and Jennifer Bissonnette, RISD biological programs designer, involves using a range of technology — microscopy, micro-imaging systems, GIS, 3D scanners, high speed video cameras, and both 2D and 3D software platforms — to explore the visualization and representation of organisms from and the ecology of Narragansett Bay.

The work will serve as a case study for developing interactive, highly engaging and informative narratives with the goal of expanding public interest in and understanding of bay ecology in Rhode Island. Additionally, the project will advance research on using the arts to effectively communicate important scientific concepts in ways that stimulate public awareness and understanding of complex ecological systems and the effects of human activities.

“We originally started out with the idea of creating a novel representation of how to promote marine science to the public,” says Barrett, a rising senior, tracing the route of her summer project. “But, throughout the creative process, our ideas have shifted, and taken different turns and focuses. It was kind of a rough idea at the beginning and then it all started to come together to be this personalized project we could call our own.

Ultimately, after a lot of brainstorming, the project group decided to incorporate a location, community, and family based project that interacts with people in multiple ways. Locations around Narragansett Bay offer places people can visit and explore, and find QR codes that link back to the website. The information is geared toward children between the ages of about 8 to 12 years old and their families in a story format that can be interactive both virtually and in person. On the website, there will be creative activities for the children to have hands-on experiences as well as activities that encourage visiting these sites and observing the nature.

“I haven’t had any experience with research in my field, but this is also a different side to research,” Barrett says. “This process has led me to be open in a lot of different ways instead of just jumping into a linear process.”

She adds that the RISD community also has provided unique engagement with new ideas and perspectives: “I’ve just been around scientists. I don’t have many friends outside of my field. I love hearing different sides from people with different majors. The process has been so free thinking and open-minded. It’s been a bit of a challenge to let go of that strict structure I’m so used to, of being told what to do.

“Now, I’m more excited and more willing to learn. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy or proud with what I’ve done with my work as I am now.”

True to her spirit, heading into last year at RWU, Barrett has no concrete plan, yet, for post graduation. She says she is still figuring out what she might want to do. While graduate school remains in the mix, she wants to take time to learn more about who she is and what she wants to pursue. Perhaps most importantly, the SURF experience has reinforced that the uncertainty and exploration works well for Barrett.

“This is freeing me,” she says of her work at RISD. “Science has grounded me and this is letting me go. I feel like I will use what I’ve learned from this experience and the openness of it to explore new opportunities for growth in my career. Being open to new ideas, being creative, and challenging yourself is a good way of being a good scientist.”

Friday, July 28, Barrett will join university and college students from across Rhode Island in presenting the findings of their summer research at the 10th Annual RI SURF Conference. The annual event marks the culmination of the SURF program, which this year involved 24 students from RI NSF EPSCoR and 99 from the Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (RI-INBRE).

Story and photo by Amy Dunkle