More Than Just a Summer Experience—a Boost of Confidence

By Tiffany King

Kayla Russo, 21, had the most jam-packed summer experience ever, thanks to her professors who encouraged her to apply for a 10-week Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The College of Coastal Georgia senior is majoring in environmental science with marine science and chemistry concentrations and is minoring in geological science. Although her REU focused on environmental science research, she walked away with motivation and excitement about her future.

Through the dual enrollment program, Russo fell in love with the College during her last two years at Camden County High School. She planned to attend a different college, but decided to stay, describing the College as her home and the environmental science program as very supportive.

“As much work as you put in, people will put in that amount of work to boost you further. It’s definitely a mutual relationship,” she said about the program.

An REU to Remember

Russo truly enjoyed her REU this past summer. She worked with six other undergraduate students from different colleges and universities and two Rice University graduate students. For her project, she was given a fair amount of freedom to hone her research skills and chose to study silica concentrations. Silica is a byproduct of weathering. When rocks break down, they release silica, which results in higher concentrations generally found in freshwater than saltwater, Russo said. She tracked how concentrations of silica change when leaving freshwater into marine environments by looking at estuaries—the place where saltwater and freshwater meet. Russo used water isotopes as conservative tracers to backtrack in samples the proportions of silica from the river and ocean. She then calculated the difference between the expected amount of silica concentration and the actual concentration collected from the water.

“We found in our system, roughly two-thirds of the silica that is on its way to the ocean is being taken by the estuary and one-third is making it to the ocean. That means there’s less nutrient availability for organisms in the ocean that need silica to grow and reproduce,” she said. “We were finding how much estuaries were affecting the transport, which was very substantial. This means siliceous organisms—organisms that need silica—will have an easier time growing in estuaries.”

At the end of the program, students presented their research, and Russo won Best Presentation. She was shocked that she won, especially since the machine she was using to measure salinity malfunctioned.

“I couldn’t believe it. Everyone else had finished their projects, and then I found out that my project didn’t work. I had to rework everything in two days. It was tough, but I did it,” Russo said.

Russo credited her ability to pivot and move forward to Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Dr. James Deemy. She talked of how he always instructs students that it’s best to calm down, breathe, and then figure it out when something goes wrong.

“I was so convinced that I would not win. It wasn’t a possibility in my mind with everything being so chaotic in a short few days. I had accepted that reality, but when they said my name, I couldn’t believe it. It took me a while to actually go up there,” she said.

If winning wasn’t enough, Russo was finally able to get her salinity values. She will use those values when she presents her REU project at the American Geophysical Union conference in December.

Unexpected Experiences

Russo became close with the other students in her program. She said they intentionally stayed together as a pack and hung out together outside of the classroom—throwing birthday parties, hiking, going to the museum and zoo. Every weekend they went roller skating, and by the end of the summer Russo became a really good skater.

“The highlight of my trip was the other people there,” she said. “I don’t think the program would have been the same with other people. Our group was very unique.”

Her group also went to Colorado and stayed at a ski resort. They hiked a glacier to learn field methods, such as mapping topography and survival skills.

“We got to do a lot of climbing in the mountains. It was super fun. Glaciers in the middle of the summer is a once in a lifetime thing,” she said.

While in Houston, Russo also met her current boyfriend. He was doing a research internship on mesothelioma across the street from Rice at the Texas Medical Center. He’s also graduating in May 2022, and they’re hoping to attend graduate schools close by to each other. Russo never expected that her REU would include a boyfriend, roller skating on the weekends, new friendships, and hiking a glacier in Colorado. She described her time as the most packed summer experience in her whole life.

Motivated About the Future

After such an interesting summer, Russo was even more excited to return to Brunswick and finish her year-long research project. Her research focuses on the effects of longshore transport of sediment on barrier islands along the southeast coast. She will be doing field research to explore how sediment moves from the north to the south of barrier islands. Russo presented the preliminary research of this project at the Georgia Climate Conference right after returning from Rice.

“I was super excited to come back to Brunswick because I had my conference and already talked with my professor about doing my research and getting published before I graduate,” she said. “While I was at Rice, I had this big rejuvenation of needing to further my career. Over the summer, I was keeping up communications with my professors here and I was able to say, ‘I have these ideas for projects. Will you be my advisor if I do this research?’ They were fully onboard, so I was more motivated to come back and do everything I can.”

Russo believes the biggest benefit of the College’s environmental science program is its close-knit community. She described her professors as very knowledgeable about not only their specific disciplines, but other fields as well to help students find their career path.

“They’ve been working to form connections with people all over, so no matter what realm of science you want to go into, they can help you as best as they can to get internships in specific fields and gear your coursework into what you want to do—that’s a huge advantage. That kind of personalized attention is almost unheard of,” she said.

With her graduate research experience and coursework, Russo feels confident that she can be a competitive applicant for graduate school and other research opportunities. She encourages other students to apply for to REUs to enjoy and gain an experience that will set them apart from everyone else. Russo truly saw the benefit of stepping out of her comfort zone and trying something new. She struggled while applying for programs, recalling how self-conscious she was about her own abilities.

“The program helped boost my confidence in what I’m able to do. Before, I was down on myself saying, ‘There’s no way anyone would want me in their program. I don’t think I can get accepted.’ Dr. Deemy, Dr. McLachlan (assistant professor of geology), and Dr. Takagi (assistant professor of environmental science) pushed me and encouraged me to apply. I only applied to one program because I got the momentum to do it, but then I got self-conscious again and I didn’t apply to some other ones. I was really fortunate to be able to get into this one. I consider it a personal achievement, but it was because of my professors who gave me letters of recommendation and pushed me forward,” she said.

Russo advises her peers to apply for programs and other interesting opportunities. She now understands that there is no harm in applying and encourages students to have their professors review any applications—they know what employers and graduate programs are looking for in prospective candidates.

“Have them review everything you’re doing. That’s what I’m doing after this,” she said during the interview. “I’m going to apply for grad school and have them review it.”

Russo plans to translate all her projects and research experience into a career focusing on isotope geochemistry. She wants to research prehistoric weathering rates using different isotope ratios and decay rates to extract erosion rates at different points in Earth’s history. Her work would be used to inform the scientific community about past climates for predictions about Earth’s future climate.

In addition to her coursework, Russo helps fellow students as a supplemental instructor and tutor for environmental science classes and math classes. She can be found in the library tutoring students and sharing her love for the environmental science program.