Marine science major researches in Woods Hole

In the epitome of cool science summer internships, a University of South Carolina student was able to spend this summer in a small village in Massachusetts called Woods Hole. Internationally known for its research in marine, biomedical and environmental sciences, Woods Hole harbors programs known for educating and providing opportunity to students from across the globe.

Dan Utter, fourth-year marine science major at Carolina, planned on staying in Columbia over the summer to work in a lab on campus. Those plans drastically changed when Shelley Schlenk, marine science undergraduate secretary, told him about the Woods Hole Partnership Education Program, or PEP.

“I got back to my non-marine roots, and I really reconfirmed that I love research and not academia,” Utter says of his time at Woods Hole. “Being at a university, you gravitate toward what all the professors here do, which many are research professors. But out there, it’s encouraging to see there are a lot of researchers who just do research. It was an encouraging alternative.”

One of six PEP institutions, the Marine Biological Laboratory offers participating students four credit hours through the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Utter’s cohort of 15 students spent the first four weeks in a course focused on global climate change, with half of the day spent in the classroom and the other half spent doing research and preparatory work with their mentors in the labs. The remaining six weeks of the summer were spent working heavily on their individual research projects.

Utter says the group of students grew very close throughout their summer together. In their free time, they climbed trees, played pick-up soccer and watched the television show "Game of Thrones." The group was provided a food allowance, which Utter used to cook for his peers, as well as housing and a stipend.

Utter’s research project for the summer focused on analyzing microbial community dynamics on the human tongue. Mentor Jessica Mark Welch from the Marine Biological Laboratory worked with Utter to view what bacteria are on the human tongue and how it changed daily. Their research also resulted in the submission of a scientific journal article, which Utter was able to co-author.

Utter also was able to learn oligotyping – a clumsy word that essentially means a method that allows researchers to draw new conclusions from pre-existing data, which saves sampling time. Utter credits oligotyping as the most important thing he learned throughout his time in Woods Hole.

This combination of learning oligotyping and his co-authorship on the journal article are integral to Utter’s future. The experience acquired and connections made in Woods Hole have resulted in the opportunity for Utter to work remotely for the Marine Biological Laboratory from South Carolina and solidified his post-graduate plans. Utter will be able to pursue an accelerated master’s degree at Carolina, which will allow him to then pursue a Ph.D. with a researcher he connected with while in Woods Hole.

After finishing his master’s degree in May 2016, he expects to receive a grant to fund his Ph.D. in coral immunology to study at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.

“Without this internship, without Jessica teaching me oligotyping … without her being generous enough to include me on the paper, none of this would have happened,” said Utter.

Utter said it’s important for students to seek internships like PEP so they can narrow down their career aspirations.

“Most internship experiences I’ve had have been a lot better at telling you what you don’t want to do,” Utter says. “When you’re working with higher-order scientists, they typically have more going on, so you can get a much easier match to something you like.”

PEP unites college students from universities across the country and is part of an initiative to attract and retain a workforce that reflects the changing demographics of the nation and international community. Utter, whose parents are missionaries, spent the first 18 years of his life living in the Marshall Islands until moving to South Carolina to attend UofSC. The cluster of PEP students was representative of different cultures, including those from Puerto Rico, Ivory Coast, Philippines, Nigeria and Hong Kong.

“It was nice because it felt really comfortable,” said Utter. “It was very acceptable to be different.”

Utter’s experience with PEP allowed him to further solidify his post-graduate aspirations, but it was his experience at Carolina that allowed him to fully take advantage of the program.

“Carolina helped prepare me for Woods Hole through the strong research emphasis here,” says Utter. “Our marine science classes more than adequately prepared me for the coursework in the internship. The chemical, physical, biological, and geological portions were review for me, thanks to our awesome professors here.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about