Students Reflect on Summer Hands-on Research Projects
Students Reflect on Summer Hands-on Research Projects

by Jackie Hennessey
Communications and Public Affairs Writer/Editor

Sometimes it looked like the ground was moving.

At least the hundreds of crabs scuttling about the marshlands made it seem that way. But Samuel Gurr `14, in his rubber boots, went into the marsh anyway, intent on researching the effects of climate change and rising seas levels on the Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crab. Gurr is one of 21 UNH students taking part in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF).

Sam Gurr '14 in a salt marsh.

He and his faculty mentor, Roman Zajac, professor and chair of biology and environmental science, set out this summer to 10 salt marsh systems from Stratford to Stonington, studying the habitat use of fiddler crabs. 

It was muddy business. “It wasn’t a field day in the marsh if you didn't come back to the lab with caked mud on your hands, arms and legs,” said Gurr, a marine biology major. And that was fine with him. “I often went on adventures as a kid to local beaches to the New Haven area,” he said. “In high school I would read articles on growing issues in the ocean, and those definitely sparked my interest.”

Gurr plans to be a research scientist, so having the chance to do undergraduate research with Zajac was an enormous opportunity.  “Dr. Zajac was always very helpful,” he said. “He not only drove me to every location, but he also was right there with me trapping crabs in quadrats (boxes) and recording videos.”

Gurr and all of the SURF fellows will discuss their research experience and findings during a campus showcase in Dodds Hall from 1 to 3 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 20.

The fellowships are awarded on a competitive basis, based on proposals that students develop with advice from a faculty mentor. Each student in the SURF program received a $2,500 stipend, nine weeks of summer housing on campus and a $700 allowance for research supplies and library resources. The SURF program is supported through a generous donation by Frank Carrubba '69, ’79 M.S. and his wife, Pat. More than 130 students have participated in the SURF program since it was created in 2007.

Gurr went into the marshes with a hunch and a hypothesis: that the crabs’ occupation of high marsh zones was in response to sea-level rise and increased tidal flooding. “I did discover this, but the differences of the crab abundances between marshes contained much more complexity than I'd previously thought,” he said. “Since my data on crab counts per marsh site is significantly different, it is possible that a variety of factors may be controlling this outcome. I'm still reading literature to determine a stand to take, but this summer of research truly taught me that no one marsh system is the same as another.”

That was as important a discovery as any, said Zajac. “Sam saw that nature and environments are very variable and you have to be careful and pay attention to this variability so you don’t over-interpret or under-interpret,” Zajac said. “It’s great to see someone who is learning science and learning how to do research to jump in full bore, infusing himself in all aspects of the project. To see that excitement evolving in a new group of scientists is important for all of the mentors, and it reaffirms why we got involved in research in the first place.”

While Gurr spent his days in the marshes, Monika Mierzejewski `14, a biology pre-med major, spent her summer thinking about bees and honey, and she too found unexpected research results.

She spent her summer studying how bee honey might be used as an alternative to antibiotics that are increasingly resistant to pathogenic bacteria.

“I’ve since become fascinated with bees and gave a seminar, `Biology of the Honey Bee,’ this summer at the Yale Sprout program for middle- and high-school students in the hopes of sharing my wonder and amazement with others,” she said.

Mierzejewski, who plans to apply to microbiology Ph.D. programs, called SURF “ideal preparation for a career in research.

“Having responsibility for the project gave me a sense of sense of ownership and inspired commitment,” she said.

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