Taking a step outside of the familiarity of an organic research lab, Senior Chemistry major Chris Vatral spent the summer analyzing the function of a new passive sampler while participating in a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Oceanography (SURFO). This 10-week research program run by the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography is geared toward rising Seniors and boasts research groups in numerous fields covering atmospheric chemistry, population genetics and everything in between.
Working alongside graduate student Rachel Miller, under Dr. Rainer Lohmann, Vatral joined the Environmental Marine Organic Chemistry Lab and began investigations into the quantification of a particular set of organic pollutants in the world's oceans: perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These compounds are present in, but not limited to, non-stick pans, carpets and food packaging, and remain in the environment for extended periods of time. Accumulation of PFAS in organisms has been shown to suppress normal development and immune response.
Passive samplers, the focus of Vatral's research, are plastic devices utilized in aqueous environments to determine the concentration of certain molecules using a ratio based on the samples collected. "A passive sampler doesn't yet exist for PFAS organic pollutants," writes Vatral, "I tested a new passive sampler which was a small fiber made of polyacrylate and gathered information on its ability to sample for PFAS in a water source." While still in the realm of organic molecules, this work is a clear departure from Vatral's previous research exposure. "This internship allowed me to explore a different area of chemistry," says Chris, "I thought it was important for me to get experience in a wide range of areas."
In addition to field and laboratory experience, the internship gave Chris insight into the life of a graduate student: attending seminars in oceanography and scientific communications, all the while preparing research proposals and results through papers and presentations. SURFO also held talks on graduate school and future careers, and the program as a whole gave him an idea of what it will be like in graduate school. Chris comments that "experiences like these allow you to meet people (possibly future recommendation writers) and to network with people who may be in the same career as you in the future."
While most students in Shrader are obliged to enroll in an internship at some point in their academic career, Chris urges them to take advantage of their summers and find off-campus opportunities similar to SURFO, funded by the National Science Foundation and discovered by Vatral through their website: "it is a good way to explore different areas of science, especially if you are unsure what you want to do in the future."