The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship allows students to participate in research on topics such as climate change. Photos courtesy of SURF. 

Some people might spend their summers surfing the waves at Narragansett Town Beach, but others may take part in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program at the University of Rhode Island instead. 

The SURF program is part of the Rhode Island National Science Foundation (NSF) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The program also works as a part of Rhode Island Consortium for Coastal Ecology Assessment, Innovation and Modeling (C-AIM), which is a group of researchers that analyze and forecast the impact of climate change on coastal ecosystems through various projects. 

The program coordinator Jim Lemire from Roger Williams University (RWU) got involved when the program started in 2007.

“My involvement came out of my interest in providing undergraduate research experiences which I think is a really important element for scientific training, [so] that the undergraduates get a real intense summer kind of program as opposed to just relying on labs during the academic year,” Lemire said.

Students can apply in the winter and pick from a list of research topics relating to the goals of Rhode Island C-AIM and the NSF.

Biology and other science majors apply for the program from URI, RWU and six other colleges in Rhode Island. The program has changed to accommodate a virtual program and delayed projects without lab access over the summer.

“We usually start at the end of May, and we run for 10 weeks in the summer, all the way up through July, and then ending sort of in early August,” Lemire said. “Anyone who didn’t finish this summer, we’re continuing to support in the fall. So, all the projects are ongoing.”

In 2019, mechanical engineering major Raymond Turusi applied for a project called the “development of the differential tilting thruster” for a Multipurpose Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (MAUV) with URI oceanography professor Mingxi Zhou. The thrusters are attached to two NACA0020 hydrofoils, which lift the underwater vehicle up from the water. 

“Over the 10-week program because there was a limited timeline, my goal was to design, prototype, manufacture, program and test out the thruster by the end of the 10 weeks and this thruster is new,” Turusi said. “There [haven’t] been [any thrusters] that have been like it. It is two thrusters appended to two actuated NACA0020 hydrofoils.”

Since completing the program, Turusi has been able to work on the rest of the MAUV to near completion presently.

Another study from the 2019 SURF program came from the Water for the World Laboratory, where URI biology graduate Devyn Barraza worked with mentor, URI professor Vinka Craver and Ph.D. candidate Kayla Kurtz. 

Barraza described her project as a study of “the spatial distribution and by molecular composition of the biofilm on polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS)” that may be used in pollutant sensors. PDMS is a silicon-based polymers used in pollutant sensors to

“So, kind of analyzing what is the biofilm? How is it forming, how do we mitigate it, how do we prevent it,” Barazza said of the focus of her project. “If it is formed, are there any preventive materials that we could use for the sensors to prevent it from growing?”

After Barazza applied to work in the program based on her experience in the course BIO 260X: Seminar in Biological Science, her May 2019 to 2020 study started as part of a larger investigation.

“We only studied Narragansett Bay biofilm that came from tanks [at GSO] with continuous water flow directly from the bay, to mimic environmental conditions,” Barazza said. “We did this to investigate anti-fouling methods to combat the biofilm growth on the pollutant sensors being built by another lab.”

Junior wildlife and conservation biology major Janelle Kmetz was able to work on a project with URI professor Soni Pradhanang and graduate student Kyle Young over this summer. Their study started last year when Kmetz dug wells in Ninigret Pond, Green Hill Pond and Greenwich Bay to test the water and find out where cold groundwater plumes are within the warmer ocean water through radio nuclei tracers.

“We use radio nuclei tracers in [an] attempt to locate where there would be high concentrations of radon, radium and salinity, so that we can estimate where those groundwater plumes are,” Kmetz said.

While the SURF program normally requires students to complete 400 hours over 10 weeks, Kmetz is completing the program working 20 hours per week. Her research has involved flying a drone over three coasts with Kyle Young and analyzing the photos using FLIR, an application used to analyze images with thermal imaging, for thermal analysis and other software to find out where the groundwater plumes are.

“In the summer, I spent a lot of time flying the drone looking for groundwater plumes with an infrared camera on the coast of Ninigret pond, Green Hill pond and Greenwich Bay,” Kmetz said. “I want to find the groundwater plumes because sometimes they take a lot of pollutants with them into the salt, water and the estuaries. So, it would be good for managing them.”

The SURF program continues to provide students with practical research experience for their prospective future careers.