Undergraduate Research Fellows to Present Scientific Research at Annual SURF Conference on July 28

Culminating a 10-week fellowship, 19 RWU students will present diverse research on the impact of climate change on the environment and biomedical issues

Public Affairs Staff
Student conducts research in science ab
Brooke Fenderson is conducting genetic sequencing of marine viruses in order to develop baseline data on the ecology and evolution of viral-host relationships and how that is impacted by increasing water temperatures and nutrient levels permeating the oceans. Image courtesy of RI NSF EPSCoR. Image Credit: Courtesy of RI NSF EPSCoR

KINGSTON, RI – Nineteen Roger Williams University students will present diverse scientific research projects – on topics ranging from designing an underwater oyster health sensor to investigating the evolution of marine viruses and the infection-inhibiting properties of maple syrup compounds – at the 10th Annual Rhode Island Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF) Conference at the University of Rhode Island on July 28.

Co-sponsored by Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (RI-INBRE) and Rhode Island NSF Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (RI NSF EPSCoR), the conference will feature about 150 research projects in the biomedical and life sciences and draw more than 400 faculty, students and administrators from the state’s universities and colleges. 

student with fish
Skyler Roberts holds a dogfish shark caught during a fish trawl expedition. Image courtesy of RI NSF EPSCoR.

For 10 weeks, full-time, the INBRE and EPSCoR SURF programs immerse students in their projects, working under the guidance of faculty mentors and alongside their peers. The process emphasizes communication and analytic skills, and exposes students to the many career opportunities available for scientists, from the ground floor of new research to the production of biodiesel and pharmaceuticals or writing about science to convey the importance of breakthroughs.

“Students emerge from this experience with a greater understanding of the research process and an expertise in research methods that most undergraduates at other colleges don’t receive,” says Jim Lemire, Marine & Natural Sciences Division undergraduate research coordinator at RWU. “When people listen to these students present their research, they often think they are at the master’s level, because, in some cases, they’ve been working on these research projects for three years, which is equivalent to working toward a master’s thesis.”

Over the past decade, approximately 140 RWU students have presented research at the annual conference. Here’s a look at what students will be presenting at this year’s conference:

  • Alicia Beauvais ’19, of North Attleboro, Mass., is working to identify the species biodiversity and sequence the DNA of a red algal family (Rhodomelaceae) found in local waters, which will help scientists understand how these organisms are responding to climate change and other human-induced stressors. Her work will contribute toward a peer-reviewed article by RWU Professor Brian Wysor, who is leading the research, an Illustrated Key to the Seaweeds of New England, as well as larger research initiatives and public educational outreach.
  • Rebecca Gow ’18, of Worcester, Mass., and Kevin Schwartz ’18, of Mansfield, Mass., are working with RWU Professor Adria Updike to engineer an open-source oyster health sensor, which can be submerged in oyster beds and use real-time data to predict the most optimal harvesting time for consumption – an initiative that may help oyster farmers in developing nations have better crop yield by reducing harvests during algal blooms, which can be harmful to humans.
  • Natalie Gambrell ’17, of North Kingstown, R.I., is investigating how naturally occurring halogenated hydrocarbons breakdown in the ocean, with the goal of understanding what effect increasingly warming ocean temperatures will have on the release of these greenhouse gases into the ecosystem, where it will add to the feedback loop of rising global temperatures causing gas to escape the ocean, become trapped in the atmosphere and contribute to heating the planet. She is collaborating with RWU Professor Stephen O’Shea; presenting also on this research are Holly Eberlin ’17, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Shayne Green ’18, of Schenectady, N.Y., and Colby Masse ’19, of Williamstown, Mass.
  • Brooke Fenderson ’18, of Fremont, N.H., is conducting genetic sequencing of marine viruses – one of the most abundant organisms in the ocean, infecting heterotrophic bacteria, cyanobacteria and eukaryotic phytoplankton – in order to develop baseline data on the ecology and evolution of viral-host relationships and how that is impacted by increasing water temperatures and nutrient levels permeating the oceans. She is working with RWU Professor Marcie Marston.
  • Sara Hunt ’19, of Kingston, N.H., is working in RWU Professor Avelina Espinosa’s molecular biology lab to research the biology of marine and freshwater amoebozoans in order to understand the cell-to-cell interaction at the unicellular level, which will inform scientists about the effect of environmental stresses, including climate change, on freshwater, marine and parasitic marine protists.
  • Kiserian Jackson ’18, of Brockton, Mass., is conducting PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing of eastern oysters infected with a common bacterium (Vibrio parahaemolyticus) that can be pathogenic to humans who consume raw oysters. Together with RWU Professor Roxanna Smolowitz and RWU Aquatic Diagnostic Laboratory Technician Abbey Scro, he is investigating whether infected oysters are more prone to accumulate the bacteria than an uninfected or mildly infected oyster, to help inform the state’s Shellfish Management Plan.
  • Skyler Roberts ’18, of West Bridgewater, Mass., is also working with Professor Smolowitz and Scro to conduct in situ hybridization (genetic sequencing) and culture of eastern oyster tissue in order to identify where the same harmful bacterium mentioned in the previous project is located in the mollusk’s body. Their research may demonstrate that bacteria accumulates in an area that can be easily flushed, and help inform whether flushing the bacteria or administering antibiotics are effective management methods.
  • Brooks Barrett ’18, of Rockport, Mass., is creating 3D exhibits of life in Narragansett Bay, using 3D scanners, microscopy, GIS, high-speed cameras and 2D and 3D software platforms. Working with Rhode Island School of Design Professor Jennifer Bissonnette and the RISD Nature Lab, this project will help communicate important scientific concepts in a way that engages and educates the public about complex ecological systems and the effects of human activities on the environment.
  • Elizabeth Gilchrist ’18, of Mendon, Mass., Kaia Lindberg ’18, of Hull, Mass., and Abigail Small ’20, of Taunton, Mass., are collaborating with RWU Professor Ed Dougherty to research computer-based models and mathematical approaches that may serve to better understand the neuron response to Parkinson’s disease and help identify effective treatment methods.
  • Matthew Gabrielle ’18, of Bellingham, Mass., Yoly Santos ’18, of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and Ashley Sawyer ’17, of North Dighton, Mass., are researching the inhibitory properties of medicinal plants, maple syrup and marine microbes that are reported to have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and neuro-protective characteristics. Working in RWU Professor Avelina Espinosa’s lab, the team is testing whether these natural products also have anti-infective properties.
  • Cory Letendre ’18, of Pawtucket, R.I., is collaborating with University of Rhode Island Professor Lenny Moise, at the Institute for Immunology and Informatics, to determine what makes the bacterium Helicobacter pylori colonize the human gut at excessive levels, which has been linked to gastric cancer in 1-2 percent of infected individuals.