Learning to be a scientist: Reflections from an undergraduate researcher

KBS undergraduate summer researcher Julie Barrios is entering into the Marine Biology program at University of California, San Diego. She wrote about her Research Experience for Undergraduates experience working with Bonnie McGill, an LTER graduate student in Steve Hamilton’s lab. Julie was funded by an NSF REU site award to the Kellogg Biological Station.

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Julie weighing out soils into centrifuge tubes.


This fall I will be transferring to the University of California San Diego to major in marine biology after being four years in community college. For a while I felt discouraged in my work and felt that I should have been done with school already. But this summer, instead of having a regular summer job, I had the opportunity to work at the Kellogg Biological Station in the Research Experience for Undergraduates program. I was mentored by graduate student Bonnie McGill who works in Dr. Steve Hamilton’s lab, and I was able to do my own research along with other undergraduates.

The experiment I got to work on consisted on learning about the fate of phosphate in three different land use types. From previous research, we learned that phosphate can be removed from surface water by co-precipitating with calcium carbonate. Our question was, does phosphate and calcium carbonate behave the same in soil? We looked at the surface and carbonate-rich soils in three locations and compared how much PO43- solution was absorbed by each soil type and location. The three soil types were the LTER agricultural field, old field, and deciduous forest.


Collecting wheat samples for my mentor, Bonnie.

When looking at the surface soils, the forest absorbed the most PO43-, even though it had the least amount of Ca2+. This demonstrated a negative relationship, which doesn’t support our hypothesis. In the carbonate-rich soils, the forest absorbed the most PO43- and did have a significantly higher amount of Ca2+. Different processes may be contributing to PO43- absorption in the surface vs. carbonate-rich soils. From our study we learned that the agricultural surface soils lose their capacity to absorb PO43-, when compared to soils that have no recent agricultural management like the old field and forest. It is important to continue studying the chemical process and movement of PO43-  in different soil types in order to understand the environmental impacts in freshwater ways.


Separating wheat samples with fellow REUs.

From the beginning, I knew this was going to be a whole new experience for me. Coming from the sunny coast of California, I found myself surrounded by the greenness and peacefulness of Michigan. Being here has brought me closer to nature and strengthened my interest in studying the outdoors. Working at KBS has reminded me that I am capable of pursuing a career in science and there is no specific amount of time that it should take to get there. By being part of this program, I was able to experience the different sides of research. I got to work in the field, chemistry lab, attend lab meetings, and present my own work. I’m happy I decided to spend my summer at KBS and now I feel more confident and prepared to start at the University of California San Diego this fall.

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Presenting summer research findings at the student symposium.