SUNY Cobleskill Biotechnology student Sharon Restrepo says she considers herself a relative newcomer to aquaculture biotechnology. Restrepo was one of two students this past year to work with Dr. Kathleen Gillespie on a study looking at bacteria in aquaculture. The team collected swab samples from fish and extracted DNA with the goal of identifying genetic markers for pathogens using Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR).
That experience, as well as her relationship with Dr. Gillespie, has propelled Restrepo into an internship at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET). The IMET Summer Undergraduate Internship Program is now in its 18th year and is directed by Dr. Rosemary Jagus, University System of Maryland (USM) Elkins Professor of Marine Biotechnology at IMET.
Restrepo is one of two IMET interns this summer assigned to a project that aims to collect information on phytoplankton blooms (massive population increase) in Baltimore Harbor. The research looks at the role environmental factors play in contributing to phytoplankton blooms (and busts) and requires tracking bloom cycles for multiple distinct populations of phytoplankton using environmental DNA (eDNA) methods.
IMET and University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Professor Dr. Tsetso Bachvaroff is leading the project. Factors the team will consider include both short and long-term population cycles, as well as multiple different phytoplankton sites. These include surface waters, and deeper anoxic waters that have low level of dissolved oxygen.
Restrepo worked with Dr. Gillespie this year on a study looking at bacteria in aquaculture.
The internship stems from IMETS partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center (LMRCSC), although it is now supported by private foundations. The program is designed to prepare students from traditionally underrepresented groups for higher education and professional opportunities in fisheries and the marine sciences. Over seven weeks (a regular summer session features nine weeks) two interns will pair with an IMET faculty member to complete a research project, focusing principally on the Baltimore Harbor.
This year, the teams are conducting their research and completing their projects virtually, using Zoom, analyzing previously collected large data sets. All interns received (and will keep) new MacBook Pros.
Prior to coming to SUNY Cobleskill, Dr. Gillespie completed her doctorate and performed a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research project at IMET. She returned to serve as the student coordinator for the summer program for 2018-2019.
Even before working with Restrepo, she says it was her goal to alert Coby students to the prestigious opportunities with IMET. Restrepo is the first SUNY Cobleskill student to enroll in the internship program.
She almost didn’t wind up in the Biotech Program, much less as an intern with IMET.
“I started at Cobleskill in Animal Science, but what I really enjoyed was doing the research,” says Restrepo. “I really liked using the different research techniques and seeing the application.”
Using the core skills she’s developed as a student research assistant, and those she will fortify as an intern this summer, Restrepo says she plans to pursue as career in immunology and microbiology, ideally at a biopharmaceutical firm.
“Sharon is going to get those transferable skills,” says Dr. Gillespie. “Each project promotes the research and collaboration skills you need to work in this kind of science. She already has that experience working with DNA extraction and PCR. Now add to that working with online databases, learning new sampling techniques and practices, and bioinformatics.”
“The (phytoplankton research) seemed like a new experience,” adds Restrepo, “and what I really want to do is broaden my experience and add to my background. There is a lot of different, innovative work happening at IMET, so there is great opportunity to do that.”
In the first weeks of the internship and her project, Restrepo’s assignments have centered on conducting research looking at individual species. Next steps will include tracking algal blooms, taking into account oxygen levels and procalcitonin (PCT) fluctuation. Cells produce PCT, a protein, often in response to bacterial infections.
Each project also concludes with distillation of results into an InDesign report card template, as well as a presentation. The seven week experience has a strong STEAM component, and includes a series of professional development workshops. This year, Dr. Gillespie will be leading her “Poetry in Science” workshop aimed at sharpening communication skills and creativity.
Students traditionally come from all over to complete their IMET internships. This year, they’ll actually be all over. The networking aspect is a huge piece of the program.
Former IMET interns, many of whom are now doctoral and master’s candidates, postdoctoral fellows, and professionals will join a roster of guest speakers that typically includes CEOs and corporate professionals. All are there to provide guidance and make connections.
“I feel very fortunate given the circumstances this year to be able to have this opportunity,” says Restrepo. “I think any connection is a good connection in this type of an environment.”
Already she says she has had impactful conversations with her project teammates – both Dr. Bachvaroff and her fellow intern, an Environmental Studies student at Texas A&M studying geosciences.
These types of connections, say Dr. Gillespie, are invaluable.
“An internship like this forms your professional cohort for your career. These students and mentors form a network that creates opportunities for professional and advanced degrees in the sciences.”
It also opens doors for colleges and universities to recruit interns to seek advanced degrees. Interns in previous years have transitioned to pursue graduate degrees or technical position. Others apply their experience to launch their careers. The presentations they make, and the intellectual property they use to make them, is their own – available to be presented at symposiums and conferences, and an excellent addition to a resume.
The IMET Summer Internship will create pathways for a distinct population of up and coming scientists. At SUNY Cobleskill and for Dr. Gillespie, the hope is that Restrepo’s experience opens up a pathway for a future students.