“Having hands-on opportunities and the chance to do research is something I'll always value...”

Armstrong Freshman- Breaking Waves, Breaking Ground

Amber Howell, a freshman majoring in Biology at Armstrong Atlantic State University, has done more research in her first year of college than many students at other universities do in four years.

This Atlanta native recently spent six weeks at sea aboard the brigantine research vessel, SSV Corwith Cramer, where she had the opportunity to conduct groundbreaking marine biology research. As part of the SEA Semester Program, which enables college students to develop original hands-on research projects, Amber and research partner Cat Jenks, from Puget Sound University, studied myctophids, a deep ocean fish also known as lanternfish. Every night at midnight, a Neuston Net was deployed to capture the myctophids as they rose to the surface to feed.

Amber was especially interested in determining exactly what myctophids eat and whether or not these fish are consuming plastic in the ocean. “In two of the myctophids we dissected, we found plastic pieces,” she said. “That is a significant finding because they're at the bottom of the food chain. When myctophids eat plastic particles and other creatures eat them, there's a concentration of plastics that moves right up the food chain.”

Amber started the SEA program by spending six weeks studying oceanography and nautical science in Massachusetts. Then, she and 17 other college students from across the United States traveled by research vessel from Key West up towards Bermuda and finished in St. Croix, conducting their own research projects along the way. “I loved doing research first-hand at sea,” she says. “You can't see the middle of the Atlantic Ocean from a classroom. That was very exciting.”

From the South Sargasso Sea, Amber blogged: “Life aboard Cramer is a new adventure every day where I am learning to challenge my body, mind and spirit. Life aboard Cramer has been the best adventure I have ever set sail on and one that I will definitely never forget.”

Before participating in the SEA Semester Program, this adventurous freshman conducted scientific research through the STEP program at Armstrong. Under the guidance of Biology professor Austin Francis, Amber spent the summer before her freshman year at AASU studying how neap tides affect zooplankton. She applied much of the information she learned about zooplankton -- as well as the research methods she learned from Dr. Francis -- to her semester at sea. The STEP program is funded by a $1million grant from the National Science Foundation.

“I felt very prepared for the SEA program because of the STEP program,” she said. “Without STEP, I don't think I would have done my research as quickly or as efficiently.” Delana Nivens, principal investigator for the STEP project at Armstrong agrees with Amber's view of the program. “The STEP program gives our freshmen and sophomores a chance to do research far outside the ordinary classroom experience. These students have the opportunity to participate in research projects that can literally have a global impact,” Nivens says. “It's an exciting springboard that gives students a genuine interest in degrees and careers in science.”

Amber is considering attending medical school after graduation to become a pediatrician, although she has a deep love for oceanography and marine biology. Regardless of the career path she chooses, she relishes the variety of learning experiences at Armstrong.

“Having hands-on opportunities and the chance to do research is something I'll always value,” she said. “For me, it's a great way to learn.” To learn how to be considered for participation in the STEP project, visit armstrong.edu/stepscholar.