By Danielle Lynch

An increasing number of undergraduate students representing a wide range of majors and disciplines are carrying out both early and advanced independent research and creative endeavors at Northeastern. Nicole Hays and Samantha Csik are two such students, working with faculty advisors at the Marine and Environmental Sciences department, and both have recently received the Provost’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors Award. This award offers support to exemplary undergraduates seeking to conduct original projects of their own design under the mentorship of a Northeastern faculty member.

Under the direction of associate professor Rebeca Rosengaus, Nicole will use the funds to continue her research using moths on the topic of ecological immunology at the Rosengaus lab. Nicole is majoring in biology and is a rising junior. Nicole is in the Honors in the Discipline program and presented her research earlier this year at Northeastern’s Honors Evening Research Expo. Her work focuses on testing whether Manduca sexta mothers can pass on immune protection to their young offspring, a phenomenon known as Transgenerational Immunity. As part of her research, Nicole developed an essay that allows her to establish the time needed to clear a bacterial infection in first instar larvae. This “clearing” assay is currently being used to compare the ability of larvae to cope with infections depending on whether their own mothers faced pathogens during their development. Nicole presented her research at the NURDS meeting during the Spring 2015 where she was awarded 3rd place in the student competition.

Under the direction of MSC faculty member Steve Vollmer, Samantha will use the funds to conduct the project “The Effects of Genetic Variation and Thermal Stress on Antibiotic Resistance in the Threatened Caribbean Coral, Acropora cervicornis” in Panama. Samantha is a marine biology major and a rising senior who has already been to Panama twice – first as a student in the Three Seas Program and again for her Three Seas co-op. Three Seas, she said, “laid the foundations on which all of my experiences have been built and has provided me with the invaluable resources I’ve needed to further pursue my passions in coral biology and reef ecology.”

Csik met Dr. Vollmer when he taught the Biology of Corals course during her first Three Seas experience. She explained that she was immediately drawn to the “complex physiology of the coral animal” and the impact of a changing ocean environment on coral health as well as the ecological factors leading to coral disease. Since then, she has worked with Drs. Deron Burkepile (FIU) and Rebecca Vega Thurber (OSU) in the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program to explore the role of corallivorous fishes and pathogenic microbes in the health and survival of coral colonies. “Getting the opportunity to spend up to 8 hours in the water and on the reef allowed me to truly immerse myself in the system I was studying and really learn how to begin asking further questions.”

She will be continuing her research this June at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Her investigation will focus on staghorn coral genotypes (A. cervicornis) which are more resistant than others to white band disease (WBD). A better understanding of the antibiotic properties of the coral host and mucus when subjected to increased water temperatures can go a long way toward aiding disease resistance in naturally occurring coral populations. “Despite the losses and threats that face acroporid corals,” she said, “very little is known about the etiology of white band disease and the coral host’s defense mechanisms.” A. cervicornis is an important species which thrives in certain sites in Bocas, making this an excellent opportunity for Samantha to study its disease resistant properties.

Their stories are a shining example of the invaluable opportunities available to Northeastern students at via the University’s commitment to undergraduate research.