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“Samantha's Level of Dedication is Incredible”
Samantha Garvey's Stony Brook mentor, Dr. Dianna Padilla, describes doing science with one of L.I.'s brightest new stars

DIanna PadillaWhen multi-award-winning high school research scholar Samantha Garvey was invited to Washington to hear President Obama deliver the State of the Union address — right after being named a semifinalist in this year’s Intel Science Talent Search — her Stony Brook faculty mentor was ecstatic, but not surprised.

“Samantha’s level of dedication is incredible,” said Dr. Dianna Padilla, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution and director of a thriving laboratory where undergraduate, graduate, and high school students do research in marine ecology. “In the more than two years she’s been in my lab, she has worked extremely hard to get to this point.”

A senior at Brentwood High School, Samantha will be the guest of Representative Steve Israel for the President’s address on Tuesday. Israel invited her after the news broke nationwide that Samantha had been named a semifinalist in the prestigious competition while she and her family were living in a homeless shelter.

Samantha’s connection to Stony Brook began in 2009 at a parent-teacher conference, when her dad, Leo Garvey, approached her high school science research teacher and told her that his daughter wanted to be a marine biologist and needed to start doing research. Rebecca Grella was only too happy to help. A former Stony Brook undergraduate and graduate student herself, Grella had earned her high school teaching certificate and was already teaching full-time at Brentwood High School when she decided to return to Stony Brook for her Ph.D.

“I knew Becky because she had worked with Dr .Lawrence B. Slobodkin, the founder of the Department of Ecology and Evolution, which was the first department of its kind in the country and one of the first in the world,” said Dr. Padilla. “Because I work in marine ecology, Becky came to me and told me she had some exceptional high school students who were eager to work in my lab. Samantha was one of them.”

Samantha GarveyIt was the perfect place for Samantha to start. Dr. Padilla’s research focuses largely on phenotypic plasticity, or the ability of organisms to respond to short-term changes in their environment, such as changes in the food environment or the presence or absence of a predator. Following up on research Dr. Padilla had started with Stony Brook undergraduates, Samantha and other high school students began been studying ribbed mussels in the marsh habitat at nearby Flax Pond in Old Field, a valuable research and training resource for Stony Brook University.

Samantha was interested in when and where baby mussels settle in the marsh and how they adapt to the presence of predators in their environment. She was intrigued to learn that baby mussels chose to settle in areas with high numbers of predators. While they grew fastest in those locations, they were also exposed to greater risk.

With Dr. Padilla she developed a research project examining the effect of that higher predation risk on the mussels. She found that mussels lower on the shore had heavier shells than those of equal size higher up: either predators were eating the thin-shelled mussels, or the mussels were producing heavier shells when in the presence of a predator. After running a controlled experiment in the lab’s aquaria, Samantha found that mussels grown with predator scent in the water grew more slowly than those without, and they developed heavier shells.

She was named a semifinalist in the 2010 Siemens Competition with her project on identifiying where baby mussels settled, which led her to her current project, for which she was named a 2012 Intel semifinalist. Her summer 2010 research was supported by a Toyota Tapestry grant that Rebecca Grella and Dr. Padilla had received, and she was a Simons Fellow in the summer of 2011. Stony Brook’s Simons Summer Research Program is supported by the Simons Foundation, whose founders, Jim and Marilyn Simons, recently gifted the University with $150 million to support research excellence in the School of Medicine and recruit faculty and students.

“I was absolutely astounded,” Dr. Padilla said of the high school students who came to her lab from Grella’s class. “Samantha and a couple of the others outperformed my graduate students that summer. I was impressed with how hard they were willing to work to find answers and by the level of curiosity and the desire to do high-quality scientific research.”

“This is such an opportunity for Samantha,” she continued. “She doesn’t take it for granted. That makes it extra rewarding for me.”

When Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone heard that the prize-winning student was living with her family in a shelter, he made a rent-subsidized home available to them. He also offered Garvey an internship to work on marine fisheries issues. And AT&T recently awarded Samantha a $50,000 scholarship to continue her research.

As one of the world’s top universities, Stony Brook offers a wealth of research opportunities for students along with well-equipped labs and nearby research sites such as Flax Pond and Brookhaven National Laboratory. But it is the faculty mentors and their enthusiasm for their subjects that help students like Samantha become successful researchers themselves.

“I love doing science,” Samantha’s Stony Brook mentor said. “It’s fun sharing what I love and seeing someone else’s love of it develop.”

Samantha is one of 61 Long Island students with a shot at the $100,000 top prize in the Intel competition. The winners will be announced this week.

–Toby Speed


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