SURF’s up 2017: RI undergrads in research

Johnson_HannahResearch fellow: Hannah Johnson
Hometown: Woodbury, MN
School: Providence College
Major; minor: Biology; Neuroscience

Hannah Johnson, a rising junior, spent her Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) studying the placement of animal propulsors in both flying and swimming species.

“If the propulsor is closer to the head, does it give more thrust or what kind of turn?” she explains. “Or, if it’s closer to the back, what does that mean for their movement?”

From marine animals like mollusks and sea angels to birds, both soaring and hovering, Johnson is helping to bring greater understanding to how nature manages to move — an understanding that will inform better building of manmade models that can conserve energy and move more efficiently.

“It’s very fun, actually,” Johnson says of the research work with Professor Jack Costello. “It’s a good time and I’ve learned a lot. Sometimes, it’s frustrating, when you don’t see patterns fitting the way you might want, but it’s cool to see where the data takes you.”

Johnson says the work has involved taking videos and photos, measuring wing span and movement, and tracking acceleration. Then, the data goes into an Excel file and the scientists look for patterns.

The Rhode Island EPSCoR fellowship offered the first opportunity for Johnson to engage in full-time, hands-on research during the summer. The intensified experience, which pays undergraduate fellows a $4,500 stipend and provides up to $500 for supplies, breeds a deeper involvement in the science, and advances technical and cognitive skills. The program also helps students define a clearer picture of their career path.

Animal behavior, particularly in marine life, and the association to humans have long intrigued Johnson and she says she hopes to continue the pursuit of her interests in graduate school.

“It’s extremely beneficial,” Johnson says of the 10-week internship in Costello’s lab. “During the school year, you have classes. So, it’s cool to dive right into it and have time to fully focus on the research. This has given me a little taste of what it’s like to be a scientist — I’m 100 percent on board!”

Johnson will present her research findings Friday, July 28, 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 photo by Amy Dunkle