SURF’s up 2017: RI undergrads in research

“Now I know I definitely want to go into research. SURF gave me the chance to spend more time on my research and helped make the decision easier.”

Lederer_EmmaResearch fellow: Emma Lederer
Hometown: Millis, MA
School: Providence College
Majors: Biology, English

A third-year Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) with Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR, Emma Lederer will graduate Spring 2018 with about as much undergraduate research experience as students possibly can gain.

“I work for Dr. Costello during the school year,” says Lederer, who joined the lab of Professor Jack Costello her freshman year, “and then, during the summer with SURF, I get to dive into the research full time.”

Broadly, Costello’s research focuses on coordinated motion in species that fly and swim, Lederer explains. Scientists do not understand why animal propulsors bend with predictable regularity, so Costello’s project with Associate Professor Sean Colin, Roger Williams University, aims to identify the relationship between the bending of the propulsors and the force generated. At the same time, researchers anticipate climate changes will alter fluid properties. By documenting the mechanics of propulsion, they will be able to gauge the effects on marine animals of changes in the ocean’s water.

Through her SURF experiences, the rising senior has helped investigate the propulsion of siphonophores and jellyfish; this summer her work has centered on measuring the placement of propulsors.

“My first SURF year, I worked with siphonophores and jellyfish, watching videos and looking at straight movement,” says Lederer. “Siphonophores have 15 or 16 individual jets, almost like a stem with a bunch of baby jellyfish. I measured the length and frequency of their jetting, and their contraction and expansion, and for how long and how often.”

For her second SURF experience, Lederer studied how the bell of the jellyfish contracted and investigated whether the size or any other qualities played a role in the contraction. A fluid particle analysis program allowed the researchers to see how different types of contractions make vortices.

Beyond her development as a scientist, learning techniques and honing her skills, Lederer says she appreciates the opportunity to be involved long-term with an open-ended research project that takes a team approach. She says she likes the unknowns posed by research and figuring out how to tackle the challenges, and collaborating with scientists at other institutions. The SURF program also offered the dual English major a chance to write, posting blogs about her work.

“In the undergraduate experience, a lot of times, you work for such a short period of time on something,” she says. “But now, having done this for so long and Dr. Costello trying to publish, it’s nice to see the work come to some conclusions and have actual results.”

As she wraps up her last summer with Rhode Island EPSCoR, Lederer’s thoughts are turning to graduation and applying for graduate school. She says the insight gained from her summer and academic year research experiences convinced her to pursue her Ph.D., possibly in marine biology or microbiology.

“Now I know I definitely want to go into research,” Lederer says. “SURF gave me the chance to spend more time on my research and helped make the decision easier.”

Friday, July 28, Lederer will present 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 photo by Amy Dunkle