By: Montana Denton
Hi, I’m Montana! I’m a senior in the Environmental Studies program at USC. This summer, I had the opportunity to be a part of two very different research experiences through the Wrigley Institute, funded by the institute’s Environmental Summer Awards.
Going into my final year of undergrad, I was feeling lost — one of the coolest parts of my major is all the hands-on and field opportunities that we get and like everyone else, I felt like I’d missed out on a lot due to COVID. I’m super grateful for both research opportunities that I was able to participate in this summer. I gained valuable hands-on experience, mentorship, and some of the clarity that I felt like I was missing as I prepare for the real world (yikes!).
The first research opportunity that I participated in was assisting Environmental Studies Professor Victoria Campbell-Arvai in social science research. She had several projects going on simultaneously, and I was able to learn skills like qualitative data coding and analysis, statistical analysis of quantitative data sets, and systematic literature reviews. The context of the research varied week to week, covering areas from carbon capture utilization to urban forests, but it was a fantastic way to build some very important environmental analysis skills.
The social science perspective was one that I hadn’t really explored in much detail, and it was interesting to look at focus group responses and data to identify public perception and understanding of various environmental issues and innovation being implemented to solve them.
Additionally, I had the opportunity to be a research assistant in the Hutchins lab on campus. I assisted a PhD candidate with her work on phytoplankton responses to changing ocean chemistry. I had absolutely zero experience in this area, but over the past several months I gained a lot of knowledge and lab skills.
We focused our research on a local harmful algal bloom species: the toxic Alexandrium dinoflagellate. Increased amounts of nutrients in the water can often yield ideal conditions for harmful algal blooms of toxic dinoflagellates, and the frequency of these blooms off the West Coast of the U.S. have been increasing in recent decades due to climate change.
Our experiment was designed to simulate a changing ocean environment — anthropogenic-induced climate change is causing the ocean to get warmer and have fluctuating levels of nutrients and marine life will be directly affected. The goal of the experiment was to measure how the growth rates and toxin production of the Alexandrium cultures change when exposed to various temperatures and nutrient concentrations.
We set up a temperature gradient (from 16 to 26°C) using a thermal block and varied both the light received. Within each temperature treatment, cultures were grown under 3 different nutrient concentrations: replete (all essential macronutrients available), nitrate limited, and phosphate limited.
Some of my biggest takeaways from this summer:
1. Try new things! I always considered myself a right-brained person, but I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed working in the lab and analyzing data.
2. Being inexperienced is a good thing — yes, there was a steep learning curve when it came to lab protocols and utilizing functions in Excel, but I asked questions and got so much out of it. I’ll be honest, I had no idea what I was doing at first, but by the end of the summer I was working independently on both my projects, and even took care of the phytoplankton cultures by myself for a week!
3. No one has it all figured out! Going into my last year of college is — to be completely honest — terrifying. I’ve been a full-time student for the past 16 years of my life, and the slow preparation for the real world is scary!
I still don’t have a concrete plan for what I want to do after I graduate, but this summer was a wonderful way to talk to people in many different realms of environmental science, and it opened my eyes to a lot of career options that I hadn’t previously considered.