Coastal communities and coastlines around the world are increasingly facing problems such as extreme weather, sea level rise, and population growth. While people may not see eye-to-eye when it comes to the drivers of these changes, most will agree that coastlines are transforming nonetheless and threatening humanity’s current way of life at the coast.
What can communities do to combat these changes? How might they adapt to become more resilient? These were some of the general questions tackled by students participating in the third year of the Resilience and Adaptation to Coastal Change Across Communities (C2C) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) this summer at the Coastal Studies Institute.
C2C participants examine a sediment core taken from the marsh of a nearby island.
The C2C REU program, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and hosted jointly by East Carolina University, Clemson University, and the University of Puerto Rico- Arecibo, brought nine students from all over the country to the Outer Banks for a summer season of intensive learning and research. Through the program, they studied both natural and human-made environments from the perspectives of the natural and social sciences, as well as engineering.
While the students had the opportunity to experience life on the Outer Banks through guided trips to Nags Head Woods, Jennette’s Pier, the NC Coastal Federation, and various municipal facilities, as well as a sunset kayak tour, the C2C program’s main goal is to give undergraduate students opportunities for research. Each of the students was paired with a faculty mentor from one of the three host schools. Some had mentors with whom they could meet regularly in person, but others coordinated with their advisors virtually. Remote collaboration added an extra challenge for some students who were only conducting research for the first time; however, according to C2C Program Coordinator Julie Kirn, all were able to overcome and have a successful experience.
“In just ten short weeks I saw a group of college students transform into young scientists. They were really devoted to their projects and worked so hard to
overcome various challenges, including remote mentoring and learning new software. There were some students that arrived at the program not knowing how to use a software that was necessary for their project, and ten weeks later they were practically experts,” shared Kirn.
A few students among the 2023 C2C cohort were particularly motivated and found extra success in addition to completing program requirements by the end of the season. While all nine students attended the Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium (SURS) on ECU’s main campus in Greenville two weeks before their own symposium at CSI, program participants Leonardo Rosario, a student from the University of Puerto Rico- Arecibo who studied the impacts of Hurricanes Maria and Fiona on two streams in Puerto Rico, and Matthew Mair completed their research ahead of schedule and were able to present at SURS too.
Matthew Mair chats with a poster session attendee about his summer research.
Mair, an economics student at Appalachian State University, studied the factors that impact farmers’ willingness to participate in conservation programs.
Participating in not one, but two, research symposiums this summer was important to him because he gained critical insight into the importance of science education. Particularly at SURS, Mair presented to a wide audience of undergraduates, including many with little to no environmental science background.
Elaborating on his overall experience, Mair shared, “The REU program has been one of the most transformative experiences in my undergraduate career. I gained hands-on experience with the research techniques that I will use during my graduate school and beyond. In fact, I am planning to develop my undergraduate Honors thesis based on the research I conducted this summer. I am beyond grateful to my mentors, CSI, ECU, and NSF for supporting me during this experience!”
Kate Lamkin is another student whose summer REU research has extended well past the ten weeks spent at CSI. Lamkin attends Colorado College and studies environmental science. Over the summer she researched the effects of soil properties and crop species on crop yield and nitrogen loss. She, like Mair, will turn her summer research interest into a thesis, and she is also excited to continue working with her summer mentors from ECU- Drs. Ariane Peralta and Randall Etheridge, as well as graduate student Mahesh Tapas- to hopefully publish a paper later this year.
During the research symposium at the end of the summer, the students fielded questions from their mentors and CSI faculty and staff as part of a panel discussion.
All the students put a tremendous amount of work into their studies, and this was evident at their own research symposium at CSI in August. Not only did each student produce a poster to share their findings with program mentors and CSI faculty and staff, but they also prepared team videos and spoke on a panel. The videos they created in small groups gave them a chance to produce a mock research proposal on the topic of their choice related to the Outer Banks. While this assignment encouraged teamwork and collaboration throughout the summer, the panel was not something for which they could fully prepare.
“This was the first time many of these students had ever been ‘put on the spot’ in front of an audience to speak about research work they’ve done, and they all held their own. The young researchers were being asked in-depth questions from experts in their fields of research, and they all gave quality, thoughtful answers,” noted Kirn.
The panel also brought to light some of the challenges young researchers face, including the obstacles involved with remote work, research, and collaboration. Overall, though, the students were delighted by the opportunities they received this summer through the C2C REU program.