SURF’s up 2017: RI undergrads in research

“I applied for SURF because none of the projects offered anything like I had done before. I was looking for something different; I want to be as interdisciplinary as possible.”

Salisbury_LaurenResearch fellow: Lauren Salisbury
Hometown: Cranston, RI
School: University of Rhode Island
Major: Marine Biology

Lauren Salisbury, a rising senior, has been as methodical about determining her career path as the research she conducts, working in labs and securing fellowships to gain insight and experience.

Among her undergraduate experiences, she participated in a project on the URI Bay Campus, helping investigate the impacts of ocean acidification on juvenile lobsters, and earned a URI Coastal Fellowship that studied the effects of oyster aquaculture on benthic invertebrate populations.

This summer, she secured a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) with Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR in the lab of Associate Professor Bethany Jenkins, College of the Environment and Life Sciences and Graduate School of Oceanography, to investigate interactions between bacteria and phytoplankton in the marine environment.

“I applied for SURF because none of the projects offered anything like I had done before,” explains Salisbury. “I was looking for something different; I want to be as interdisciplinary as possible.”

The Jenkins project focuses on bacterial interactions with a type of phytoplankton called diatoms, which are responsible for every fifth breath we take. Many important interactions in the world’s oceans that occur at the microscale level can have far-reaching consequences on biogeochemical cycling and food web dynamics. However, these interactions may be affected by climate change through ocean warming, ocean acidification, and increased UV radiation.

Biogeochemical cycling is how the Earth recycles elements through living and nonliving mediums. In this case, diatoms recycle molecules like silica, carbon dioxide, and iron through growth and photosynthesis. Phytoplankton, especially diatoms, are particularly important in the global ocean because of their roles as food sources, carbon sinks, and oxygen producers. The project’s investigation of these interactions between diatoms and the bacteria will focus on previously unknown and overlooked players at the bottom of the food chain and will better inform understanding of biogeochemical cycling and, in turn, inform ocean models.

“I’m basically doing a community ecology project, looking at the different species of diatoms in the Southern Ocean to determine which ones are important to the community in terms of physiology and population,” Salisbury says. “This will help us understand how these populations are going to change with climate change.”

Lauren Salisbury
On the SURF fish trawl with the Cap’n Bert, Lauren Salisbury prepares to return a couple of fish to Narragansett Bay.

Much of Salisbury’s work on the project involves culturing diatoms and growing the populations to a specific size and extracting DNA to identify their species. She also conducts several rounds of growth evaluations, measuring the microscopic organisms every other day for a two-week period.

“There’s a lot of pipetting and microscopy scans of cultures,” she says, noting that the genomics work is new for her. “The sequencing process — I did it in a BIO lab freshman year, but this has really helped me expand my abilities.”

As she readies to apply for graduate school, Salisbury says the SURF experience has brought greater definition to what she wants to pursue: “I guess this has helped me solidify that microbiology is probably not something that I want to do. But, the skills and techniques I’ve learned make me a more well-rounded scientist, which has always been my goal. I am still going to keep exploring my options.”

She remains fairly certain, though, that she will stick to the marine biology field and credits the Cranston Area Career & Technical Center with giving her an early start as a high schooler. She gained acceptance to the aquaculture program during high school and gained hands-on experience in the field. From there, she earned a scholarship to a marine biology camp at Roger Williams University.

“The combination of those programs helped me see what scientists actually do,” reflects Salisbury. “They also really helped me solidify what I wanted to do in college.”

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle