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Ocean, faculty await new wave of students

By Clifton B. Parker on February 12, 2006 in University News

Last summer, instead of heading off to work or class, UC Davis student Angelica Zavala began her days at the ocean. During early-morning low tides, she monitored snail and seaweed populations in the rocky intertidal zone.

Zavala and nine other undergraduates lived and worked at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, getting their feet wet in the world of marine biology research. The students, chosen from universities around the country, participated in the lab's Research Experience for Undergraduates program funded by the National Science Foundation. The lab is on the Pacific coast at Bodega Bay, about 60 miles north of San Francisco.

Bodega Marine Laboratory director Susan Williams runs the program and now is accepting applications for summer 2006 participants.

"We want to make young undergraduate students—mostly freshmen and sophomores — independent in research," she said. "The students have nine weeks to come up with a research project in the local environment, execute it, write it up and present it to their colleagues."

With help from faculty mentors, last summer's 10 students devised projects examining everything from seaweed to sharks. Zavala, now a senior, explored the potential effects of global warming on a marine snail's feeding habits. Elizabeth Huerta Ortiz, another UC Davis senior, examined how native and invasive grasses are withstanding attacks by a new plant pathogen on the Bodega headlands.

The work introduced the students to the real-life challenges of scientific research.

"I had a problem with snails eating my grasses," said Huerta Ortiz, who had planted pathogen-infected grass seeds to measure their germination rates. So she turned to her colleagues, both students and faculty members, to decide how to outsmart the interfering snails.

"The other students had lots of ideas," Huerta Ortiz said.

The trick was that she did not want a solution that would add new variables in the middle of her experiment. "In the end," she said, "I used an enclosure to protect the grasses, wrapping the plants in wire." She also put copper strips around the snail trails: "The copper gives the snails a tiny shock, so they don't like to crawl on it."

With the snail problem out of the way, Huerta Ortiz determined that the pathogen-infected grass seeds sprout more slowly than they should, a result that could have long-term impacts on grass populations at Bodega Head.

Before last summer, Zavala had little contact with the ocean. But her work, which showed that the marine snail Tegula funebralis eats more at the increased temperatures predicted during global warming than at current temperatures, assured her that she wants to pursue a career in marine biology. "Neither of my parents finished high school," she said. "But now I know that I want to earn at least a master's degree. It's very exciting to do research and answer questions that no one has answers to."

Both Huerta Ortiz and Zavala say exchanging ideas about their experiments was one of the best parts of the summer. "I was the only plant biologist there, so at first I felt a bit left out when people talked about marine science," Huerta Ortiz said. "But Angelica took me to the intertidal zone and taught me everything about her project. I was so excited. Then I took her to my research site and taught her about my project. You get a better sense of what you're doing when you explain it to someone else."

For Zavala, the highlight was giving the final presentation of her work. "We set up a day near the end of the summer when each student gave a 20-minute PowerPoint talk," she said. The students summarized their projects on professional-quality posters similar to those displayed at major scientific meetings.

Williams said the students' work impressed her. "Some of them gave talks that were as good as faculty talks I've heard."

Williams thinks that, in addition to the self-confidence that the students gained, their early exposure to marine research will give their careers a big push. "If you want to be a marine scientist, you have to learn to work with the ocean," she said.

Williams said faculty members loved the mentoring part of the program. "It's refreshing for our researchers to see scientists that remind you of yourself early in your career," she said. "They were curious, they worked so hard, and they were so excited."

The Research Experience for Undergrad-uates program has funding at the Bodega Marine Lab for two more summers. Applications for 2006 are available at

The application deadline is March 1.

Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,