October 23, 2014

PEP Broadens the Woods Hole Net

By Laurel Hamers

Among scientists, Woods Hole holds an international reputation as a hotspot for research. Especially during the summer, the community brims with geographic diversity, attracting visiting scientists from around the world. Yet it is still lacking in diversity in a very important aspect: with members of traditionally underrepresented groups in science in the United States.

The Partnership Education Program (PEP) is a collaborative initiative among six Woods Hole science institutions and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) that intends to close this gap from the bottom up. The program recruits a diverse cohort of college undergraduates, mostly rising juniors and seniors, to spend ten weeks in Woods Hole carrying out research at one of the institutions (MBL, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution [WHOI], Woods Hole Research Center, NOAA Fisheries, Sea Education Association [SEA], and U.S. Geological Survey, Woods Hole).

PEP student Olamide Olawoyin conducting field work in Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Falmouth. Working with MBL Ecosystems Center scientist Jim Tang, she is measuring greenhouse gas emissions from a salt marsh. Credit: Tom Kleindinst

PEP was born in 2009, five years after leaders at the six institutions signed the Woods Hole Diversity Initiative, a commitment to attract researchers from a wider pool and make the village a more inclusive community.

Attracting a diverse group of students to Woods Hole requires reaching out to schools and students who may have never heard of the village. PEP Director Ambrose Jearld, Jr., director of academic programs at North East Fisheries Science Center, maintains a wide network of faculty and administrator contacts at colleges across the country that has helped to publicize the program. “Through the PEP program, we’ve tried to build pipelines into communities that don’t typically send students to Woods Hole,” says PEP Program Manager George Liles, curator of the Woods Hole Science Aquarium.

The program emphasizes mentorship, hoping to not only attract talented students but also help them stay in science. Because PEP is run by a consortium, the students network with scientists across the institutions; they also receive career guidance through formal workshops.

For Daniel Utter, a rising senior at the University of South Carolina, the chance to mingle with a diverse group of scientists and peers is a major draw of the program. “They mix us in with all different institutions. We’re at a WHOI barbeque one day, and then we’re at the NOAA barbeque the next day,” he says.

“[The partnership] gives all the students an opportunity to have access to everything,” says PEP Program Coordinator Onjalé Scott.

To be inclusive of students who depend on summer earnings to fund their college education, the program provides all participants with housing, a food allowance, and a stipend. The students are housed on the Sea Education Association campus.

For the first four weeks of the program, all PEP students take the same course together, for which they receive college credit from UMES. (This year, the topic was Ocean and Environmental Sciences: Global Climate Change.) Each student is matched with a faculty mentor based on shared research interests. They work in their mentor’s lab for the duration of the summer, and present their research in a public seminar at the end.

PEP at the MBL

Four of this summer’s fifteen PEP students are working in MBL labs.

Daniel Utter is conducting research on microbial diversity in the lab of Jessica Mark Welch, Assistant Research Scientist in the MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center. “We’re working on oligotyping, a way of trying to characterize microbial communities and find ecologically meaningful groups to put them into,” Utter explains.

Utter has found mentorship and support within the MBL. “Talking to Jessica [Mark Welch] about her past experiences is great. And I’m sharing a desk with a microbiology professor from Dartmouth and get to hear him talk about his research.”

Ola Olawoyin, a rising junior at Philander Smith College, agrees. “There are so many different labs around—It’s a really amazing networking opportunity,” she says.

Olawoyin is working with MBL Assistant Scientist Jim Tang on a project investigating greenhouse gasses in saltwater marshes around Cape Cod.She appreciates the community-building aspect of the program. “I like the fact that there’s 15 of us [in the program] and we all live together. We also get to connect with students in the other MBL undergraduate programs,” says Olawoyin.

MBL PEP student, Angelique Taylor, is working with Ken Foreman of the Ecosystems Center to analyze groundwater contamination in West Falmouth Harbor.

“I think this program is great because it brings diverse people who have a common interest in science together to live and work,” says Taylor, a student at Florida A&M University. “I have a better understanding now of what it means to be a research scientist.”

The fourth MBL PEP student, Samih Taylor from Cheyney University, is studying, “Short-term Microbial Community Assembly on Plastic Marine Debris: Evidence From Experimental Colonization Studies in the Waters of Woods Hole, MA,” with both Erik Zettler (SEA) and Linda Amaral Zettler at MBL.

Lifelong Connections

Jearld keeps in touch with former PEP students, continuing to mentor them after they leave the program. Many past participants have gone on graduate school, some have presented their summer research at conferences or published papers, and few of them have even returned to work at Woods Hole institutions and their affiliates.

He stresses the reciprocal nature of the partnership: how it benefits the entire Woods Hole community, not just the students. “One of the hidden and least talked about aspects of PEP is how much we can learn from the students about how to be better people, as well as how to reach out and embrace someone from outside our own identity,” says Jearld. “We naturally have the tendency to draw back and find comfort in sameness. But when working with the students, we have to realize [that we all bring something different.]”

While Jearld believes that making Woods Hole a truly diverse village will take continued time and effort, he believes that PEP has made inroads. “We’ve demonstrated that there’s a demand for the program from researchers in Woods Hole, and there’s institutional leadership that realizes this program is demonstrative of what a collaborative initiative can do,” he says. “I hope to see it sustained.”

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The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery and improving the human condition through research and education in biology, biomedicine, and environmental science. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.