When Ross Brown applied to be a summer research assistant at the MBL, he had no idea that he’d started down a path that would send him to Germany with a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship. 

Brown, University of Virginia class of 2023, was a Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation summer fellow in the MBL Ecosystems Center under senior scientist Zoe Cardon during the summer of 2022. He helped design a project growing a local cordgrass species (Spartina alterniflora) in the MBL greenhouse, from spring dormancy through the summer peak and into the fall at different salinity levels. 

Brown set up an artificial “tidal” system and found that the cordgrass continued to grow happily up to a salinity of 33 parts per thousand—the levels of ocean water. The work was based on long-term research by MBL Ecosystems Center scientists Anne Giblin and Inke Forbrich at Plum Island Ecosystems Long-Term Ecological Research Site, north of Boston, where Brown conducted field work. 

“I’d never been to a salt marsh before in my life. I do mostly terrestrial work and I’d never been to New England. It was the sort of sense of adventure starting a research job going somewhere new,” said Brown. “It was absolutely perfect. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. It was amazing.”

Ross Brown with his mentor MBL scientist Zoe Cardon
Ross Brown with his mentor MBL scientist Zoe Cardon stand in front of Eel Pond in Woods Hole. Credit: Ross Brown
A photo of a saltmarsh with the cordgrass (S. alterniflora) in the foreground.
A photo of a saltmarsh with the cordgrass (S. alterniflora) in the foreground. Credit: Ross Brown

“This work was crucial to my Fulbright application,” said Brown, whose scholarship will take him to the Technical University of Munich in the fall. 

When Brown left Woods Hole at the end of the summer 2022, he had no idea that the greenhouse research project he designed would be continued by another student. That fall, Semester of Environmental Science (SES) student Grady Welsh, Middlebury College class of 2024, picked up where Brown left off.

As part of his SES independent research project, Welsh augmented Brown’s work, increasing the salinity ranges to see how it would impact the cordgrass. “Ross put in a ton of work over the summer and it was really cool to get this experiment that was already set up and… focus more on data analysis and statistics versus experiment design,” said Welsh. 

SES student Grady Welsh
SES student Grady Welsh stands next to his cordgrass experiments in the MBL greenhouse. Credit: Grady Welsh

Welsh wrote about his SES research as part of an application for the competitive Barry Goldwater Scholarship—a program for outstanding college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

"I don’t think I would have gotten [the award] without the work I did at MBL and all the support I received from Zoe," said Welsh.

"These two awards are so prestigious and the fact that two students, who came to the MBL in separate programs, were awarded them in the same year is a real testament to the experience at the MBL," said Linda Hyman, Burroughs Wellcome Director of Education. "Students who come to the MBL may change the trajectory of their careers."

Together, Brown and Welsh, are writing up their combined project with the goal of submitting the data for publication.

“MBL provides hands-on research opportunities that are exciting in themselves and that also plug students into larger networks of motivated students and dedicated researchers,” said Cardon. “Both the REU program in summertime and the SES program in fall bring together students from many different universities and colleges, and the relationships they form with each other and with research mentors last a lifetime. There’s nothing like the full-immersion research experience. It can be a career path inspiration!”

Both Welsh and Brown said the opportunity to be embedded with working scientists in a full-time research lab was one of his favorite parts of being at the MBL. “I think having the exposure to everyone that works at MBL and feeling what it is really like to be working in ecology and environmental science was probably my favorite part—just feeling like we were part of the Ecosystems Center, too.”

Brown agreed. “It really started my research career network,” he said of his time at MBL. “It’s really awesome when you can organically meet and grow with the researchers just by being there and doing work.”


Learn more about the MBL's Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) Learn more about the Semester in Environmental Science (SES)