Undergrads across the U.S. join unique coastal environmental research experience at FIU

A lucky group of undergraduates from across the nation had the summer of a lifetime exploring the iconic coastal ecosystems of South Florida with FIU’s Institute of Environment.

The institute welcomed a double cohort of students from 18 institutions, including two local FIU students, for a 10-week immersive research experience with the Coastal Ecosystems Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program is led by College of Arts, Sciences & Education Associate Dean of Research Rita Teutonico. The 19 students hailed from 14 different states and Puerto Rico.  

Students participating in a beach seine.
Students participating in a beach seine

“We were delighted to be able to host such an enthusiastic and committed group of undergraduates from all over the country this summer and provide them this unique research experience,” Teutonico said. “We hope many will return as graduate students with FIU scientists in the near future.”

The institute’s Coastal Ecosystems REU program engages undergraduate students in both lab and field experiences focused on understanding the connections among the Everglades wetlands, coastal mangrove forests, seagrass beds and shallow water coral reefs. The REU offers several one-of-a-kind field trips to Florida ecosystems, from an airboat tour of the Everglades to trawling for marine critters in Biscayne Bay.

“The main reason I chose this program was because I loved the vast amount of research that is being done in consideration of the environment and all of its resources,” said Lizbeth Gonzalez, an REU student from California State University, Fullerton. “But when I arrived, it was more than good research, it was good people with kind hearts.”

Students are placed within a primary faculty lab based on their research interests. They are also paired with near-peer graduate mentors from FIU’s CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment who guide the students on a daily basis through their projects and data analyses.

“I was doing classes online this past year and a half because of COVID, so I missed out on a total of five hands-on chemistry and biology labs,” said Catherine Kaylor, REU student from Texas A&M University. “My mentors were so supportive and encouraging while I was relearning some lab techniques I hadn’t used in a while, as well as learning new techniques. This experience in an environmental chemistry lab was exactly the jump start I needed to get back into the lab setting.”

For three of this year’s REU students, The Everglades Foundation supported their Everglades-focused research. Michael Borbolla, Maxwell Taks and Katherine Hulting were each awarded the Everglades Foundation’s John Marshall Internship, which provided additional opportunities to engage with policy makers and environmental advocates over the course of the summer. Borbolla and Taks are both FIU students, while Hulting joined the REU from Gordon College in Massachusetts.

“The John Marshall Internship with FIU’s Coastal Ecosystems REU helped me see the big picture about water and biodiversity, all the way from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay,” Taks told The Everglades Foundation. “Water is life for the Everglades – one of the most unique ecosystems in the world – and it is our job to be informed stewards.”

Borbolla, Taks and Hulting each studied different aspects of the Everglades ecosystem. Borbolla looked at the concentration of mercury in juvenile bull sharks. Taks analyzed nutrient flow in the Everglades through fish secretions. Hulting studied invertebrate communities’ response to leaf litter with the institute’s longest running Everglades research program, the Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological research program.

Ayi Ajavon, REU student, holds a crab.
Ayi Ajavon, 2021 REU student

The REU supports student projects across many ecosystems in south Florida, not just the Everglades.

University of Georgia student Ayi Ajavon hopes to continue to pursue projects similar to what he studied during his summer in Miami, where he worked on identifying where prey species of sport fish can be found in Florida Bay.

Other students’ projects ranged from studying dolphins in Biscayne Bay to understanding how environmental factors change the epigenetics of certain species to addressing flooding and sea level rise in Miami’s coastal urban neighborhoods. One student even spent the summer creating and testing formulas for an eco-friendly concrete alternative!

“I believe the students were able to gain insight on what it feels like to be in a scientist’s shoes, beyond their undergraduate course textbooks,” said Katherine Castrillon, co-program manager for the REU Site. “They learned about the amount of work and preparation involved in a research project and saw how their contribution to lab work, field work, and data management analyses accumulated to the communication of their research to the public at the end of the 10-weeks.”

Students got to experience what it’s like to be a researcher working in the environmental field. But they also got to learn other skills like science communications and data management. The REU program incorporates professional development workshops to teach students valuable career skills, including effective resume writing, crafting a LinkedIn profile and honing presentation skills.

Probably one of the most valuable takeaways for the students though, are the relationships they foster with their faculty and graduate student mentors.

“Both my faculty mentor and near-peer mentor were always positive and encouraging,” said Hulting. “They mentored me beyond my research this summer, from specific graduate school recommendations to general career advice.”

Research Experiences for Undergraduates are highly competitive summer research programs in the United States for undergraduates studying science, engineering or mathematics. The programs are sponsored by the National Science Foundation and are hosted at various universities. FIU’s Coastal Ecosystems REU hosted students from Georgia State University, University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras, Davidson College, University of Louisiana – Lafayette, Rockhurst University, Clemson University, California State University – Fullerton, Pennsylvania State University, Gordon College, Texas A&M, Arizona State University, Stetson University, University of Dayton, SUNY – Binghamton, University of Maryland – Baltimore, The Ohio State University and University of Minnesota.

Learn more about the Coastal Ecosystems REU program and how to apply.