A Day in the Life of an Undergraduate Researcher in Woods Hole

A Day in the Life of an Undergraduate Researcher in Woods Hole

By Isa Alvarez

Eel Pond, Woods Hole, MA

Eel Pond, Woods Hole, Mass.

Hi everybody! As summer winds to a close, it is nice to take some time to reflect on what this summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) has brought us ­­­­– a new vision, relaxation time, or other experiences.

I can say that this summer brought me many opportunities, from working in a lab doing hardcore research to meeting students from all over the states with a passion for science. I was at the MBL through a Jeff Metcalf Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), a University of Chicago-­MBL program that brings 10 students from the university to Woods Hole every year to do the research they have set out in their application proposal.

As someone who has lived in Chicago her whole life, I was very fortunate to get the chance to do research in Cape Cod, Mass. It is nice to get out of the city once in awhile and this summer showed me what all the buzz about the Cape is about.

Follow me through a day at the MBL to see what I mean!

From left to right: small sea star; inoculating the virus into a sea star; enjoying my experiment

Left to right: small sea star; inoculating the virus into a sea star; enjoying my experiment.

6 AM: Wake up! I know this seems a bit early, but when you live next to the beach and the sun rises at 5 AM, it is worth it. I usually start my day with a nice jog around Woods Hole. While jogging, I let my mind roam free as my senses wake up to bright green trees all around me, a nice breeze hitting my every move, and the sound of smooth waves crashing over the rocks.

8 AM: After showering, I head to Swope Dining Hall. Since I have been at the MBL, I have started eating a lot healthier. I don’t know if it is the location or summer in general that makes me crave veggies and fruits. Luckily, the dining hall has a wide selection of breakfast options ranging from fresh watermelon to homemade omelets. While enjoying my breakfast, I am joined by my friend and exercise buddy Nikita, a rising second year at UChicago, whom I had never met before this summer. We are able to catch up on our research and our exercise plan for the afternoon. ­­ Should we jog, swim, or just walk around?

Left to right: Metcalf SURF students Vishok Srikanth, Theresa­Anne Tatom­Naecker, Olivia Cattau, Ali Sjaarda, Petra Byl, Leonard Shaw, Michael Sloyan, David N. Vishny, Ty Bowyer, Nikita Mehta, Isa Alvarez

Left to right: Metcalf SURF students Vishok Srikanth, Theresa­ Naecker, Olivia Cattau, Alexandra Sjaarda, Petra Byl, Leonard Shaw, Michael Sloyan, David N. Vishny, Tynan Bowyer, Nikita Mehta, Isa Alvarez.

9 AM: I usually start lab work at this time. This summer I am doing research on sea stars and the sea star wasting disease (SSWD). I closely monitor the effects of sea star wasting disease on Asterias forbesi and A. vulgaris found on the U.S. East Coast, particularly in regards to the microbiome of sea stars and the effects of the microbiome on susceptibility to SSWD. I walk into the nicely air­-conditioned Lillie building and head up to the third floor. I say hello to Eric, the post­doc in my lab, and head over to my desk. I catch up on e­-mails and any other forms that I have to fill out, like for reserving tank space at the Marine Resources Center (MRC).

Mark Terasaki and I dissecting a sea star

MBL Whitman Center Scientist Mark Terasaki and I dissecting a sea star.

10 AM­ – 11 AM: I usually head over to the MRC to check up on my sea stars, ranking their health using a chart I found in a master’s thesis. I like checking on my stars; it gives me a sense that I am a doctor, checking in on my patients. It is one thing to read about the wasting disease affecting sea stars, but it is another thing to actually hold a wasting star in my hand. Today I began my experiment to see if the disease can be inoculated into a star. Although it may be hard to carry out experiments sometimes, it is important to keep in mind that you are doing it for the better of society.

Noon: Catch up with other Metcalf students over lunch. Discuss anything from our plans for the weekend to how our research is going.

1 PM: I ran into Mark Terasaki, a researcher from UConn Health, who has done research on sea stars in the past. That is one of the great things about the MBL­­ — the collaboration that takes place between researchers. Mark has helped me with my project by sharing and exchanging ideas about the wasting disease, looking at certain organs under the microscope, and just sharing his overall experience with research. In the photo at right, we are talking about the different methods to dissect a sea star and his method for identifying the sex of the specimen.

2 PM: Meet with my mentor, MBL Senior Scientist David Mark Welch, and go over our plan for the week (see photo at top of page). The great thing about the Metcalf program is that you get to work closely with a mentor of your choice. This is the person who is constantly helping you out with the research, is in the lab most of the time, and is always willing to help you out in any way possible. It is great to have someone guiding you, especially if this is the first time you are doing research. Plus, you really get to know your mentor throughout the summer, leading to a possible recommender.

Water Street Bridge

Water Street bridge, Woods Hole.

3 PM – ­5 PM: Image sea stars using the confocal microscope with my other mentor, MBL Senior Scientist Jessica Mark Welch. Ever since arriving at the MBL I have learned new and valuable skills that I will carry back to a lab at UChicago. I have truly immersed myself in science: I’ve learned about imaging, bacteria, echinoderms, microscopes, and different research projects taking place at the MBL. One of the great things about this program is the amount of hands­-on work that you do in the lab. It really prepares you and gives you insight into what life is like as a researcher.

5 PM­ – 6 PM: Go home and relax for about 30 minutes by reading a book or catching up on my current favorite shows on Netflix.

6 PM – ­7 PM:
Head to Swope and have dinner with other Metcalf students. Catch up on our day and how our lab work is going; take some time to sit on our dorm’s porch and just talk.

Hanging out with other Metcalf SURFs, from left, Petra Byl, Isa Alvarez, Olivia Cattau, David N. Vishny, Jim Kutlowski, and Vishok Srikanth.

Hanging out after dinner, from left, Petra Byl, Isa Alvarez, Olivia Cattau, David N. Vishny, Jim Kutlowski, and Vishok Srikanth.

7 PM – ­9 PM: Bike along the Shining Sea bike path from Woods Hole to Falmouth with Olivia, a Metcalf student and third year at UChicago. The bike path has a great view of Fay Road Beach, cranberry farms, marshes, and many trees.

10 PM: Jump off the Water Street bridge with other Metcalf students as a way of celebrating our opportunity to be in Woods Hole!

11 PM: Call it a night.

Isa Alvarez, a rising second year student at the University of Chicago, received the McCarter Family Metcalf Fellowship in 2016 to conduct summer research at the Marine Biological Laboratory. She is majoring in French with a focus on pre­medicine with a goal of becoming a cardiologist.


For information on undergraduate research opportunities at the Marine Biological Laboratory, contact education@mbl.edu