Completion of REU Program at Mystic Aquarium Sets Students Up For Future Success

This September, a group of eight college students returned to their respective college campuses armed with important findings following their completion of the 2019 Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program funded by the National Science Foundation at Mystic Aquarium. Throughout the ten-week program, students engaged in a ‘true view’ into the world of research; focusing on cutting-edge marine research while receiving extensive training in professional development, teamwork and more.
“We had an exceptional class of students,” said Dr. Tracy Romano, Mystic Aquarium’s Vice President of Research & Chief Scientist. “They take with them real-world experience and undoubtedly keener insight and renewed focus as they continue to pursue careers that will help shape the future of scientific research, education, and conservation.”
Each student selected a mentored research topic designed to support their investigation in relation to a specifictrophic level of the marine ecosystem, with continued emphasis as to how changes in one trophic level can disrupt the balance of the ecosystem.
“My perspective on my schoolwork has changed following the REU,” said Deanna Elliott, who is majoring in both Biology and Conservation Biology & Ecology at Arizona State University. “The project I worked on over the summer is similar to the kind of work I want to do, and being able to be so hands-on in the program made my classes much more real to me, and I find I am more excited for them. I feel much more prepared for my future. I know that I am capable of achieving my goals.”
Students were selected based on a personal statement of interest in marine sciences, academic record, letters of recommendation and explanation of desired research mentors. 
“This program has provided me the experience I need to pursue my own career in research, a lifetime goal for me,” said Andrew Rivera from Melbourne, FL, a Marine Biology major at Florida Institute of Technology.
In addition to class and lab work, the ten-week program also included educational tours, animal and ecosystem exhibit observations, job shadowing, group professional development seminars and interaction with Aquarium resources as well as with the general public.
“The program helped me grow as a person by pushing me out of my comfort zone as well as testing me as a researcher,” said Raul Flamenco, of Pomona, CA, an Environmental Biology major at California State Polytechnic University. “I know that I’m on the right path, and the REU helped verify that.”
Mentors include Mystic Aquarium scientists Dr. Tracy Romano (Principle Investigator (PI) and project leader) and Dr. Paul Anderson, as well as UConn-DMS scientists Dr. Hans Dam, Dr. George McManus, Dr. Evan Ward, Dr. Hannes Baumann, Dr. Penny Vlahos and Dr. Ann Bucklin.
Dr. Michael Finiguerra of UConn, program co-PI and mentor for the cohort as well as completing an REU during his education and career path , supervised the day-to day operations of the REU.
“I certainly have more of an appreciation and understanding for the science-related school work/research that I do now. I was able to interact and perform research with people who loved what they were doing and it truly made me a better scientist because of their enthusiastic approach to their research,” said Joseph Wojtasik of Wallingford, CT, a Biology major at Quinnipiac University
Ultimately, the goal of the REU program is to broaden the impact on the future STEM workforce by increasing its diversity, promoting scientific literacy in underrepresented communities and exposing students to expanded STEM career opportunities.
“I have always felt motivated to work hard in school,” said Julia G Baer, of Emmitsburg, MD, a Biology - Mount St. Mary's University, “but the REU experience -working in this environment of discovery, learning and collaboration- not only showed me the value of the scientific and problem-solving skills I have learned in undergraduate courses but also helped clarify that graduate school was the right path for me.”
“I am just as excited about marine science as I was when I went into the REU program,” added Baer, “but now that I have a better understanding of the broad range of options in the field of marine science, I am more open to trying new things to see what research interests me.”
In an effort to provide a well-rounded experience, students were also provided with opportunities to explore the surrounding area, visit other research institutions as well as other cultural attractions.
“I feel as though I have more of an appreciation for the work that I do,” said Alex Hernandez of Ames, IA, an Animal Ecology major at Iowa State University. “This REU has given me a more confident perspective on school work but I believe the greatest impact t is the boost in confidence I have when doing anything, even non-academic activities!”
2019 REU students included: 
•             Julia Baer of Emmitsburg, MD, Biology - Mount St. Mary's University
•             Deanna Elliott of Tempe, AZ, Biology and Conservation Biology & Ecology - Arizona State University
•             Raul Flamenco of Pomona, CA, Environmental Biology - California State Polytechnic University
•             Amanda Girod of Middlebury, VT, Molecular Biology & Biochemistry - Middlebury College
•             Alex Hernandez of Ames, IA, Animal Ecology (Wildlife Option) - Iowa State University
•             Mary Reid of Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, Biology - Bard College
•             Andrew                Rivera from Melbourne, FL, Marine Biology major - Florida Institute of Technology         
•             Joseph Wojtasik of Wallingford, CT, Biology - Quinnipiac University
“Having worked closely with these students, I, too, feel bolstered by following this year’s program and the positive impact these students will have on our future,” added Romano.
Mystic Aquarium is the first aquarium to host an REU which is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Biological Infrastructure in the Directorate for Biological Sciences and the Division of Oceanic Sciences.
About Mystic Aquarium
Mystic Aquarium, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, is counted among the nation’s leading aquariums, offering exemplary care to a variety of species while also serving as the northeast’s premier marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation center. Robust conservation and education programming along with unparalleled visitor experiences serve to strengthen personal connections to the animals and their environments. The mission of Mystic Aquarium is to inspire people to care for and protect the ocean planet through conservation, education and research, and introduces approximately 800,000 guests annually to thousands of animals through structured interpretations, specially-curated exhibits and hands-on interactions. As a leading research organization, Mystic Aquarium employs a full staff of scientists engaged in projects focused on the conservation and sustainability of our ocean planet.