Andrea Chan subsampling a small crab that she collected from dead coral heads off the coast of Bali.

UCLA program allows students to dive into international education

The Diversity Project aims to increase the participation of underrepresented minority students in the biological sciences using research and field work on the diverse coral reefs of the Coral Triangle with cutting-edge molecular genetic research.

“I’ll never forget how I felt the first time I snorkeled in Tulamben, and I suddenly found myself surrounded by a huge school of fish as a ship wreck loomed below me. It inspired me to work even harder to succeed as a marine biologist.” ~Andrea Chan

Fourth-year UCLA undergraduate student Andrea Chan had experienced the rush of scuba diving in the Pacific Ocean, but never imagined the sheer vastness of marine life that she would one day encounter off the shores of Bali, Indonesia.

“I just couldn’t get over it – it was like watching a national geographic documentary,” says Chan, who spent part of her summer conducting research and gaining valuable international experience in one of the world’s richest underwater playgrounds.

“I’ll never forget how I felt the first time I snorkeled in Tulamben, and I suddenly found myself surrounded by a huge school of fish as a ship wreck loomed below me.  It inspired me to work even harder to succeed as a marine biologist.”

Chan was one of six American students who travelled to the Indonesian island with UCLA Associate Professor Paul Barber, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, as part of The Diversity Project, a 10-week educational program designed to increase participation of underrepresented minority students in the biological sciences using an integrated research experience that combines field work on the colorful and diverse coral reefs of the Coral Triangle with cutting-edge molecular genetic research.

While in Bali, Chan and the rest of the Americans took classes with Indonesian students at the Indonesian Biodiversity Research Center in Denpasar and learned modern molecular genetic techniques to study color polymorphism in Dottyback fishes.  In addition, she and her peers observed the organisms in their natural habitats. This helped them better understand the ecological relationships and delicate food webs more clearly, she says. 

 “While collaborating with leading scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, we helped break apart dead coral heads, and then documented every living organism that we pulled out of them, which then became part of a large online database,” says Chan, who had never been outside the United States before this. “It made me realize how many opportunities there are for scientific research abroad.  It also inspired me to want to work abroad, and I plan to live in another country temporarily and conduct research after I graduate.”

It also gave her an appreciation for international education.

“International education is important because it teaches students about international cooperation,” she says, adding that the Americans and Indonesians learned a lot from one another about scientific research and about life. As a developing country, Indonesia is still building its research capacity. Working in Indonesia provides unique research opportunities to American students and scientists, while helping to develop Indonesian research capacity, she says. “Together, we make on unstoppable team.”

This type of impact is precisely what Barber was shooting for when he launched the program in 2005 at Boston University. In addition to fostering the next generation of marine biologists by providing this type of experiential learning, the initiative also helps students wade through the murky waters of selecting and applying to graduate school and choosing a faculty advisor.

“There’s really nothing like our program out there. It’s pretty unique in terms of its size and focus,” says Barber. “Most of our alumni are either in grad school or are applying to grad school. A number of them have gone off to pursue Ph.D. programs, and they use the skills they learned there. This program gives them a unique, scientific experience, and the tools to take that experience and extend it into future research in the field as a graduate student.”

The program, which is open to undergraduate students attending any accredited American post-secondary institution, has supported 29 students from more than a dozen U.S. colleges and universities. Of the 19 who have finished their undergraduate studies, all of them are still in science, says Barber. Eleven are in graduate school studying marine or evolutionary biology. The rest are applying to graduate school, working in genetics labs, are in the Peace Corps or attending medical school. Program alumni include two Fulbright Scholars, four National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows and one Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar. In addition, 72 percent of the participants have been women, 41 percent Hispanic, 24 percent, African-American and 10 percent Caucasian. In addition, 24 percent of the program’s participants identified as being from other underrepresented racial groups.

Adding to the program’s attractiveness is the fact that students don’t have to pay to participate. Those who are selected have their airfare and room and board paid for, and are given a $3,000 stipend to cover other expenses. The application deadline for the summer 2012 trip is Jan. 1.

 

Published: Thursday, November 10, 2011