REU inspires tomorrow’s aquatic scientists

REU alumnus Stephen Levas plans to stay in academia with an eye on landing a research faculty position. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at The Ohio State University studying coral reefs. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Andréa G. Grottoli)

Even at the tender age of 12, Stephen Levas was enthralled with coral reefs and marine life. Growing up in Greendale, Wis., he had to settle for observing them in an aquarium.

Then, while attending Carroll University, he was encouraged to apply for a federally funded summer program that offers undergraduates hands-on aquatic research at UWM’s WATER Institute (now the School of Freshwater Sciences).

By applying to the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, he was taking the first step of a journey that has taken him to much larger universities for graduate school and to some of the richest coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean.

Lake Michigan as laboratory

Russell Cuhel, senior scientist at the School of Freshwater Sciences, and Carmen Aguilar, associate professor, direct the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which has been operating for 25 years. (Photo by Alan Magayne-Roshak)

This summer, as they have for 25 years, talented undergraduates from institutes across the U.S. – sometimes from among the undergraduate ranks at UWM – will conduct research at the School of Freshwater Sciences, working side-by-side with UWM faculty. Lake Michigan is their laboratory.

“We have many students interested in aquatic sciences come here because the reputation of our program is well developed,” says Russell Cuhel. A senior scientist at the School of Freshwater Sciences, he co-directs the program with associate scientist Carmen Aguilar. “Continuously operating for all these years isn’t trivial.”

At least half of the 250 REU alumni have gone on to graduate school. Many of them now work in scientific and technical careers – from a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to a robotics scientist at IBM.

REU leads to Yellowstone, Mexico, Hawaii

Scientist and REU alumna Molly Redmond with a sample taken as part of a microbes study related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Photo by David Valentine, UCSB)

Molly Redmond is one successful REU alumna. As a geochemist at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Redmond led a study that identified the microbes responsible for consuming a massive amount of natural gas that was dumped in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A Dartmouth College student at the time she joined REU at UWM in 2001, Redmond credits the program as her first real introduction to aquatic research.

In fact, at summer’s end, Redmond joined SFS scientists Cuhel and Aguilar on an additional scientific venture – studying microbes in Yellowstone Lake.

“I spent four weeks with Russell and Carmen in Yellowstone National Park,” she says. “I learned a lot about lab and field work in one of the world’s most amazing places. That experience has been incredibly helpful in my work since then.”

Pennsylvania native Jamie Becker got his first brush with the Great Lakes when he participated in REU in 2003. His educational journey has been packed with travel ever since.

Jamie Becker completed REU and is now a scientist with the MIT/ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program. Here he set up incubation experiments aboard the research vessel Melville in 2010. (Photo by Mar Nieto-Cid, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The quality of his summer research earned him a trip to the national REU poster competition at the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO), where he met a new professor at the University of Hawaii who was searching for a lab manager. Becker decided to defer graduate school in order to take the job.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity, had I not been at ASLO,” he says. “The REU took me out of the clinical lab research that I had been doing and was instrumental in sending me on this path to marine microbiology.”

When Becker was ready for graduate school, support from Cuhel was again pivotal in helping him get into Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), where he has just completed his Ph.D. and is working as a postdoctoral researcher in the inter-institutional MIT/WHOI Joint Program.

Freshwater faculty mentor, motivate, recruit

Cuhel and Aguilar aren’t the only mentors active in the REU. Over the years many SFS faculty have volunteered with REU, representing the wide array of disciplines associated with the school. The 2012 mentors included Jerry Kaster, Tim Grundl, Rudi Strickler, Paul Roebber, John Janssen, Rebecca Klaper and Laodong Guo.

In the last few years, the REU has served as a pipeline to recruit talented students to SFS for their graduate studies – and even students who are not accepted to the REU are now considering UWM.

Joe Valencia enrolled in SFS after he completed his REU there just last summer.

Armed with his bachelor’s from UWM’s Conservation and Environmental Science program, Valencia is pursuing a professional master’s, which requires a commercial internship rather than a research thesis. Aguilar is his mentor. “I’d like to take what I learn in graduate school and apply it to issues facing private industry,” Valencia says.