SURF’s up 2017: RI undergrads in research

McDermith_EmilyResearch fellow: Emily McDermith
Hometown: Fryeburg, ME
School: University of Rhode Island
Major: Cell and Molecular Biology

McDermithAs a freshman last year, Emily McDermith scored a position working in a faculty lab her second semester. However, she says, she wanted to fully immerse herself in research without having to juggle an academic course load.

She applied for a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) with Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR to gain the freedom of conducting research full time. As the 10-week paid internship in the lab of Associate Professor Bethany D. Jenkins, College of the Environment and Life Sciences and Graduate School of Oceanography, winds down, McDermith says the SURF program has delivered that opportunity and more.

“During the semester I jump from the lab to class, making time a constraint on my experiments,” she says. “This summer, it was really important for me to get down the fundamental skills that will set me up for my future.”

Tasked on a project that focuses on the interactions between diatoms, a microscopic marine algae, and their associated bacteria, McDermith is working on the bacteria end, investigating how the bacteria may help the diatoms take up the iron they need to grow. Diatoms are a type of phytoplankton and play a critical role in the ocean’s health, serving as a food source for other organisms and contributing to the marine nutrient cycles.

But, without iron, these tiny marine algae can’t fulfill their role, and the question arises whether low iron environments will experience further decline under the impacts of climate change. To help bring greater understanding, McDermith says, the Jenkins Lab is isolating and observing the diatom-associated bacteria under different conditions.

“The bacteria produce molecules called siderophores that fix the iron into a compound that allows diatoms to absorb iron,” explains McDermith, now a rising sophomore. “We isolate the bacteria from diatoms from the iron-limited marine environments, culture to purify one strain of bacteria, and then put them into liquid media for DNA analysis. Throughout, I screen the different strains for siderophore production and take growth measurements.”

Fish trawl
SURF labmates Emily McDermith, left, and Lauren Salisbury, check out one of the many species found in Narragansett Bay. The undergraduate researchers participated in a fish trawl on the Cap’n Bert this summer with the RI EPSCoR SURF program.

The lab work is detailed and precise, and McDermith finds her technique improving with the SURF experience: “There’s a lot of pipetting and centrifuging. I’ve gotten much better at extracting my bacterial DNA and analyzing.”

She describes the process as taking a concentrated sample of bacteria in liquid media, then boiling the cells to release the DNA that is inside the cells, and then running the DNA through a gel to separate out the DNA. By charting the growth curves of the bacteria, she says she is learning how to interpret growth curves, which leads to understanding conditions and when to collect the siderophores produced.

McDermith traces her initial interest in microbiology to her high school Advanced Placement Biology class, when she did her first gel extraction. Now, taking her science to the next level, she says, her summer work with the Jenkins Lab also has exposed her to problem solving, reading research papers, and developing her time management — all skills that can be applied outside the lab as well.

“I’m amazed by how much I’ve learned this summer with SURF,” she says. “I think just being here all the time, being in the lab, in an atmosphere that is so dynamic and collaborative … it’s an experience I don’t think I would have gotten during the school year.

“This has definitely shown me I want to have more research experience. I look forward to applying the versatile techniques I’ve learned this summer to future work in the medical field. SURF has opened doors for me and set me up for future research.”

McDermith will wrap up her summer experience Friday, July 28, when she presents her research findings at the 10th Annual RI SURF Conference hosted by the University of Rhode Island. The annual event is the largest presentation of undergraduate research in the state and 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