Stone Lab’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Scholarship Program goes virtual amid COVID-19 precautions
Most summers, Stone Lab’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Scholarship Program brings a select group of students to Gibraltar Island to conduct original research with faculty advisors from universities across Ohio. They study algal blooms, birds, or fish, and get hands-on experience of what it’s like to be a working Lake Erie researcher.
But 2020 wasn’t like most summers. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all in-person classes and workshops at Stone Lab had to be canceled, and staff and REU supervisors worked hard to provide an alternative to already accepted REU students. As with so many other things that year, the answer was going virtual.
“We still wanted to give the REU students an opportunity to do research,” said Dr. Justin Chaffin, Stone Lab’s research coordinator. “With a virtual REU, you’re not getting the hands-on experience, but you’re still gaining this valuable experience of analyzing data, finding data that you’re not collecting yourself, and preparing a presentation or report.”
Over six weeks, five students from different universities worked with research supervisors on projects that ranged from harmful algal bloom warning systems to bird survival on the Lake Erie islands. While they weren’t able to collect their own data, they were able to dive into data sets collected from a variety of different settings.
“This was my last chance for an undergraduate REU, since I’m going to be a senior,” said Alexis Brown, a biology major at Cleveland State University who worked with Dr. Darren Bade, an associate professor of biological sciences at Kent State University. “Our project was creating a method for the early detection of harmful algal blooms using statistics. It was my first time being able to apply statistics outside of my coursework, which I was really happy about.”
Alexis used data from the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) to refine a statistical model that would predict when an algal bloom is likely, based on what water conditions were like before previous algal blooms. Once that model is updated and refined, it could be used to help water treatment operators get ready for harmful algal blooms before they happen.
“When everything started getting canceled, I was really disappointed because I was looking forward to that in-person field work experience at Stone Lab,” Alexis said. “But I actually had a really great experience with the REU because my advisor and I were able to determine what kind of project we could do remotely, and I learned a lot from it because we were able to work together and make it our own.”
Elizabeth Teaford, a forestry, fisheries and wildlife student in Ohio State’s School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR), agreed.
“I was really looking forward to the field work aspect of the REU, but at the same time, with all the technology that we have, it was a really good experience just being able to do it in a virtual sense,” Elizabeth said. “I think that would stand out, being able to actually have those computer skills to be able to do research online, because that’s what a lot of research is. Yes, you go in the field, you do gather your data, but most of the work of analyzing stuff is done online.”
Elizabeth worked with Dr. Suzanne Gray, an associate professor in SENR, on an ongoing project that investigates the impacts of harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie’s recreational walleye fishery. For her REU, she used information from creel surveys, collected by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources from 2002 until 2017, to determine whether a higher harmful algal bloom severity index, which estimates how large an annual bloom will likely be, affects how much time anglers spend on fishing and how many walleye were caught during that time.
“After going through yearly data, we found that there wasn’t any significance,” Elizabeth said. But when they narrowed down the information to just August, there was in fact some correlation to be seen. The team believes this was because August tends to be the month with the most severe algal blooms in Lake Erie, but the connection wasn’t as significant as they hypothesized.
They also considered that there may be a connection between the number of walleye hatched in a given year and time spent fishing, meaning that during higher recruitment years, anglers spend more time on the lake. They may follow up on this hypothesis with future research.
Overall, despite expressing disappointment in not being able to spend their research time on Lake Erie, REU students spoke positively about the virtual experience. It wasn’t what they expected when they applied for the program in early 2020, but they all expect to put the experience to good use in graduate school or in their first jobs.
“These deep dives into the data allowed the students to discover things that might well have been overlooked in a busy field data collection season. Moving forward, we need to evaluate the positive aspects of this more virtual experience for our undergraduate students and consider what adjustments we can make when we emerge from this pandemic,” said Dr. Jan Weisenberger, Ohio State’s senior associate vice president for research, during the final REU presentations. “With a combination of fieldwork and more virtual data analysis, hopefully we’ll provide research experiences to even more students, and come out the other side of this better and stronger.”