Cabrillo Marine Aquarium
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Become a Volunteer Research Intern

The volunteer research internship program is for senior high and undergraduate students who have a passion for marine biology and are ready to take it to the next level by designing and implementing their own research project. There are two CMA research project cycles each year and both cycles are launched with an Icebreaker to introduce students to the program.

"We do the Icebreaker twice a year at the beginning of each research cycle. The cycles allow us to have a structured program with an orientation, safety training, training on how to write proposals, the scientific method, assignments, basically everything we need for a structured training program is only possible if we stop and start at the same time every year," explained CMA's Research Curator Kiersten Darrow.

The first cycle lasts about three months and starts at the beginning of summer and the second cycle lasts about six months and starts in the fall timed to coincide with the beginning of the school year. "During the summer, we get a lot of college students and a lot of just general interest students looking for something to do. Then in the fall, the majority of students coming are science fair students," said Darrow.

Regardless of the timing, each research cycle functions as a mentorship program, not a class. This means that all project ideas come from students, but CMA's expert staff members are on-hand to guide a student researcher through the process. Darrow emphasizes, "The program is merely offering laboratory space and animals and staff mentors, but all project design comes from the students, so there's no existing project that a student inherits when they come in. They have to do everything themselves."

The research program places a strong emphasis on students to design and create their own project to maintain an even playing field in the world beyond the Aquarium. "We have graduate students and PhDs in here. If we had people like us designing a project for competing students it wouldn't be fair to other students at science fairs, so we're sensitive to that," said Darrow.

For students interested in participating in CMA's Research Internship Program, visiting the Aquatic Nursery to gather information and potential research ideas before attending the Icebreaker is essential.

"During the Icebreaker, we show them all the animals on display, we actually give them an animal inventory so they can see what animals are in the aquarium and are available to them and we do demonstrations of projects all around the room so they can picture it in the setting and figure out what works," said Darrow. "Most of them are seeing that for the first time if they haven't visited before, but if they visit before the Icebreaker then they'll have a head start."

Having a head start and arriving at the Icebreaker with project ideas is important because at the end of the day there's a workshop where CMA staff meet with students to go over research ideas and potential project designs. "Students sit down with us and tell us about the project and staff give feedback, such as that would work, that wouldn't work because the equipment is too expensive to get," said Darrow. "But if a student comes in and they don't have a project in mind then there's nothing to talk about."

Students with good ideas that work well within the context of CMA's Aquatic Nursery have the best chance of being accepted into the Research Internship Program. And once a student is in the program, the sky is the limit! CMA staff members have proven to be excellent mentors with winning results. At the 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair CMA student researchers placed 1st, 3rd and 4th in their respective categories. Wow!

Another exciting aspect of the program is having the chance to participate in CMA's annual Young Scientist Symposium held each spring. This event gives student researchers the chance to present their findings to the public and practice important public speaking skills that will come in handy later in their scientific careers speaking as experts at conferences or as professors to a packed lecture hall.

Plus, all the costs associated with CMA's Research Internship Program are covered by FRIENDS of Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, which seeks support through foundations, corporations and individual donors to fulfill Aquatic Nursery annual budget requirements of more than $30,000. This includes the research internship program, Aquatic Nursery tours and the Young Scientist Symposium.

Since its inception, longtime supporters Carl and Marge Lundgren, have generously underwritten the total cost of the Young Scientist Symposium. And the John T. Funkhouser Endowment also helps support volunteer student researchers through funding provided for marine biology research at the Aquarium.

For volunteer student researchers, this means that if you have to buy a special tank or order a very specific type of food for your project, the cost is covered through donations given specifically to fund research.

Also, thanks to individual donations, CMA has top-of-the-line research equipment onsite. "Pete Major gave us a huge piece of research equipment that we couldn't do work without and Jeff Neu gave us all the data analysis equipment and without him we would be working on scratch paper," said Darrow.

And having the chance to work with and learn from CMA's expert staff is well…priceless.

To find out when the next Research Program Icebreaker is being held, visit our Volunteer page.

Post Date: Monday, August 15, 2011


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