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Researcher of the Month
Marine Vertebrate Biology & Environmental Sciences majors, Honors College, Class of 2012
Dr. Jackie Collier, SoMAS
When it comes to "beyond-the-classroom" experiences, there's no bigger fan than URECA's Researcher of the Month, Sean Fitzgerald! Sean spent 3 weeks in Costa Rica last summer as as a PRETOMA volunteer, tagging sea turtles and working to protect Olive Ridley eggs. During the intersession last winter, Sean participated in a Study Abroad program and travelled to Beijing and Chengdu, China, learning first-hand about Chinese culture. Next semester, Sean will be venturing to another hemisphere, to study marine and environmental sciences and oceanography at theUniversity of Auckland, New Zealand. And for the past several months, Sean has embarked on a hands-on undergraduate research project at SB's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences(SOMAS) in the Collier lab, working to unravel the mysteries of Labyrinthulomycetes. What connects all these experiences is learning by doing: “I feel like in research I’ve learned already more than all my lab classes combined. In the classes themselves, you kind of follow a recipe, or a cookbook. But when you’re actually doing it, especially being able to interact one on one with Dr. Collier, you get to understand the thinking behind everything that’s going on.”
An Honors College junior with a 4.0 GPA, born and raised in Florida, Sean has had a life-long curiosity and interest in nature, particularly the marine world. Last semester, when he attended theUndergrad Biology Open House in the hopes of connecting with a research scientist on campus, he was delighted to find that his honors college mini-course instructor, Prof. Jackie Collier of SoMAS, was there in attendance and was looking for undergrad trainees for her lab.* Soon after, Sean happily joined the Collier lab, where he has had the opportunity to learn and perfect various lab techniques (from performing cell counts to fluorescence microscopy) while investigating labyrinthulomycetes and their role in marine ecosystems. An added bonus: weekly lab meetings/discussions with his mentor and the grad students have enhanced his writing skills and his ability to analyze scientific publications.
Sean has also learned much as an intern for an environmental consulting firm in Gainesville, Florida, where for the past two summers he honed his skills in GIS
mapping (ArcView) and wrote and prepared reports (e.g. Natural Resource Management
Plans) for the Army Corps of Engineers. At SB, Sean is member of the Environmental
Club, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, the Sigma Beta Honors Society and
the Golden Key Honor Society; and in his spare time, loves hiking, kayaking, and intramural
sports. Sean graduated first in his class from Eastside High School in Gainesville, Florida. Next year, he will be engaged in researching/writing his senior thesis
for the Honors College; Sean's long-term future plans include graduate studies in
marine sciences/ecology. Below are excerpts from Sean's interview with URECA Director, Karen Kernan.
Photo 1: Sean holding 5 of ~ 90 eggs laid by an Olive Ridley sea turtle. Eggs were dug up from the beach where they were vulnerable & then safely transferred to the hatchery where they were protected from poachers (& natural predators, such as snakes or crabs).
Photo 2 (below): Fluorescence photomicrograph ofLabyrinthulomycetes (small round cells at right, about 5 microns in diameter) on a fragment ofSpartinagrass. Labyrinthulomycete cell walls fluoresce red when stained with acriflavine.
Karen: Tell me about your research.
Sean. Our overall goal is to figure out as much as we can about this group of protists (microbes) called Labyrinthulomycetes. They’re found everywhere — in marine ecosystems, some in freshwater—yet we know so little about them. In the Collier lab, we’re trying to figure out characteristics of these organisms so we can figure out their ecology, their role in ecosystems. We’re looking at different things such as growth rates, how they react to different things, how they grow on different media. There’s still so much that’s unknown about the role of these organisms. But that’s also why it’s so exciting for me to be working on this project!
How did you get involved in the lab?
It was actually the Undergrad Bio Fair that led to my joining the lab. I had been curious to do research, and I’d heard that it was a good thing to do….So last spring, the second semester of my sophomore year, I went to the Bio Open House. What’s funny is that at that point, I was actually taking a mini-course in the Honors College on microbiology with Dr Collier. Even though there were only six of us in the class, I hadn’t talked to her in class specifically about her own research. It wasn’t until I saw here there, at the bio fair, that I started talking to her in detail about the projects she was working on. Dr. Collier’s research really intrigued me from the start. It was after that conversation that Dr. Collier said she’d be happy to have me join the lab.
That’s great how it worked out!
I’m lucky. It’s a really good environment. And Dr. Collier, she’s a great mentor. She’s really patient. If I have any questions, she’ll go over it immediately. She encourages me to ask questions. She guides me when I need it, and lets me do the work on my own when I can. Most of the work I do is directly with Dr. Collier. There are also several grad students, another undergrad….
How has being involved in research enhanced your education?
I feel like in research I’ve learned already more than all my lab classes combined. In the classes themselves, you kind of follow a recipe, or a cookbook. But when you’re actually doing it, especially being able to interact one on one with Dr. Collier, you get to understand the thinking behind everything that’s going on. When I’m in the lab, she’ll ask me, “What do you think we should do here?” She’ll talk about what the next step will be, what I should do next. Stuff like that. Really understanding not only what I’m doing but why I’m doing it is really important. With the hands-on experience . . . it’s just good to understand how it’s actually done. It’s one thing when you learn—and another thing when you’re actually doing it.
Did you have any background working in a lab, any prior experience?
No. Dr. Collier mostly taught me as I went along. I’m also taking bio lab at the same time, which is reinforcing what I’m learning. But I’ve been learning all kinds of stuff. Fluorescence microscopy, for instance, was something I’d never had experience with before, in my lab class.
Do you have a favorite day of research so far?
We were doing a fluorescence dye on the cells. I’ve used a microscope before. But I’d never used a fluorescence microscope. . . We grew the cells on a lot of different media. One of the media was ground-up Spartina grass. It’s hard in a compound microscope to differentiate between the cells and the Spartina. With the acriflavine dye (the dye we were using), it’s supposed to stain the cells so that the cell wall fluoresces red, and the inner contents of the cell fluoresce bright green. We hadn’t done it before… And it took a few days. At first, we weren’t having too much success. But on the second or third try, we got it and it looked absolutely perfect. And that was really cool! I have those pictures on my laptop now.
Is it difficult to balance academics and research?
For me, it’s not that bad. When I have a few tests coming up, Dr. Collier will say “If you need to take off early go ahead, make up the time next week.” Having a flexible mentor really helps balance everything.
What are your plans for next semester?
Next semester, I’ll be going to New Zealand! I’ll be taking classes in marine science or environmental science, environmental modeling, oceanography…. So that will be the coursework. It will be in Auckland. I’m hoping to get out and see New Zealand ... I’ve heard absolutely great things about New Zealand from everyone. Maybe I’ll get over to Australia also to see the Great Barrier Reef….I’m really excited.
And next summer?
The tentative plan is to come back to Stony Brook, and take a bio lab class. I’d like to continue working with Dr. Collier in the summer, and get started on my senior honors project.
Tell me a little about your experiences last summer.
I went to Costa Rica for 3 weeks. I heard about this program, PRETOMA, through a friend, also an environmental studies major. And it was amazing!…I can’t believe more people don’t know about it. Basically the program is focused on sea turtle conservation. The main problem is poaching, people who come out to the beaches and dig up the nests at night. So all of us, the volunteers in this program, we would go out and do night patrols, and walk the beach at all times. If you see a turtle, your job was to tag it and measure it — while the turtle was laying the eggs, and in a trance-like state. After the turtle covered up the eggs, you would then dig the nest up, and move the eggs to a hatchery where the eggs would be protected. The poachers can’t get into the hatchery but if they notice a nest they will dig it up. That was a lot of what we were doing, plus some maintenance work on the hatchery.
Did you actually get to tag a turtle laying eggs?
Yes- it was really cool. An olive ridley. That was mostly the kind of turttle we saw. One of the local guys that worked with Pretoma actually saw a leatherback one night. They said they hadn’t seen one in ~13 years. He came sprinting back, and yelling in Spanish “leatherback”. So we sprinted out but we didn’t end up seeing it unfortunately. It was pretty exciting nonetheless. . . Overall the experience with Pretomas was absolutely great. Everyone was really nice. It was a really good program.
In previous summers, apart from your Costa Rica experience, what did you do?
The last two summers (2009, 2010) I worked in environmental consulting in Gainesville Florida. It was a pretty small company—maybe 9 or 10 people when I started. They do a lot of the dredging consulting in the southeast. One of the main things I did was GIS work, mapping, creating figures for reports they were sending out. Let’s say the Corps of Engineers wants to widen a channel by x meters/x feet, then they’re going to take x amount of land out, and they have to make sure that they replace that habitat elsewhere so that it’s sustainable process. I would make figures where wetlands are going to be impacted or where the channels are. The person I worked most closely with was the GIS specialist, and she taught me a lot about GIS, and programming.
That sounds like valuable experience.
The GIS work was really helpful.
I know it’s still early on in your research…but can you summarize what skills you’re
learn from being involved in research?
One thing that’s really been helpful are the lab meetings we have once a week. The grad students will typically bring in a paper on something that they’re working on… They’ll basically dissect the paper – say what’s good about it, what’s bad about it, what could be better, what methods are a little off, or could be improved, etc. The writing tips from those papers we go over – that’s an added bonus that I didn’t expect. That’s really valuable to actually see how it applies in real research. You get experience in looking at scientific papers, analyzing figures. The writing is really key.
Also from working the lab, I’ve learned more about looking at data, understanding the variables involved. For me, when you see data that doesn’t seem to make any sense, the instinct is, “what did I do wrong?” I talk to Dr. Collier regularly about the data. Sometimes it’s possible that there’s a variable you’re not seeing that accounts for it. You learn to work your way through it...
Your home is in Florida. Did you come to Stony Brook knowing you wanted to do marine/environmental
I knew I wanted to do something in the environmental field since elementary school. I’ve always been fascinated by marine sciences, the marine world. I still remember when I was young, and got to see a coral reef. I’ve only been on a coral reef one time. But I still remember it like it was yesterday. I can’t wait to go back. Hopefully next semester . . . But the way I heard about SB was during my junior year of high school, when we had a mandatory meeting with our guidance counselor. I went in thinking, “I don’t know what I’ll get from this.” I told my counselor that I wanted to do something in the environmental field and that I need to go to a state school for budget reasons. Somehow she had a connection to Stony Brook and told me to check it out. So I looked at it. And it was obvious there was a great program here. Plus you have Long Island Sound, the ocean, all these ecosystems right next to you. . . So I applied and it worked out well!
So you’re glad you came to SB?
Absolutely. I love it!