Home » 2021 Ocean Sciences REU

2021 Ocean Sciences REU


REU Student Incubators
Students setting up deckboard incubators aboard the R/V Sikuliaq during our 2019 REU program.

The Northern Gulf of Alaska Long Term Ecological Research (NGA LTER) project invites undergraduate students to participate in our interdisciplinary oceanographic research this summer. This cohort of REU students will join our team from June 15 to August 20, 2021. The application period closes February 15, 2021; applicants will be notified in mid-March.

The NGA LTER is one site within the national LTER network. Our research team investigates the features, mechanisms, and processes that support NGA ecosystem production and foster its resilience. Scientists conduct field work, including ship-based experiments, run computer models of the ocean, and communicate findings to students and the public through education and outreach partners.

We seek highly motivated undergraduates with interest in marine science, biology, chemistry, and/or physics to work with scientists through the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Student research will integrate with work currently being done on the NGA LTER ecosystem. The time period of this REU position includes our summer cruise aboard R/V Sikuliaq, so participation in ship-board research activities is possible, as is historical time series or retroactive data analysis. Oceanographic research themes include biogeochemical cycling, microplankton ecology, physical oceanography, chemical oceanography, zooplankton ecology and molecular studies. For more information on potential research projects, please see potential projects and mentors, listed below.



  • Stipend of $5760 for a full-time position (40 hours per week) over 10 weeks.
  • Additional funds may be available to offset housing and transportation costs.



  • College level background in biology, chemistry, physics, or marine science.
  • The ability to carefully follow instructions.
  • Desire to work in a team setting.
  • Communication skills.


  • Upper division status in a Bachelor of Science program.
  • An interest in continuing scientific research upon graduation. 

How to Apply

Applicants must be citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. and its possessions and must be enrolled in a 2- or 4-year institution of higher education. Students who have received a bachelor’s degree before the start date of the program are ineligible. Members of groups under-represented in earth and environmental science are strongly encouraged to apply.

To apply, email each of the following:

  1. Cover letter

The cover letter should include a brief description of your interest in participating in LTER research. See potential projects and mentors.

  1. Resume

Make sure your resume includes:

  • Contact information: email address and telephone numbers
  • Previous laboratory/field experience
  • Anticipated graduation date
  1. Transcripts

Unofficial transcripts are acceptable.

  1. One letter of reference

This email should be sent directly from the person writing the letter, with the applicant’s name included in the subject line.

Application materials may be submitted by email to:

  • Katie Gavenus, Education and Outreach Coordinator
  • Email address: projectmanager.ngalter@gmail.com
  • Please include “REU” at the start of the email subject line

Questions? Please contact projectmanager.ngalter@gmail.com



Potential REU Project Ideas and Mentors

R/V Sikuliaq
R/V Sikuliaq

Ideas for REU projects give an overview of current research topics at the NGA LTER, and include aspects of biological, chemical and physical oceanography in the northern Gulf of Alaska. Projects involve retrospective analysis of decades worth of data, or cutting-edge sampling aboard R/V Sikuliaq. The following are project ideas submitted by NGA LTER investigators. REU students might work on one of them, or use them as inspiration to design their own research project. At the end of the summer, students will present their findings.


REU project with Will Burt:

Tracing nutrient inputs using radioisotopes

The marine algae that form the base of the marine food web require essential nutrients to grow. For some micronutrients (e.g. iron and manganese) the seafloor is thought to be a potentially important source, but quantifying this seafloor source is difficult. Naturally-occurring radium isotopes have a distinct seafloor source, and once they enter the water column they decay at well-defined rates. Therefore, by detecting radium alongside micronutrients in surface waters, we may be able to calculate the rate at which seafloor-derived nutrients are transported into surface waters, and if we do that, we’ll add an important piece to the complex puzzle that is the Northern Gulf of Alaska biogeochemical cycle.

During the 2021 summer LTER cruise on R/V Sikuliaq, the REU will involve collecting water samples, extracting radium isotopes from samples onto fibers, and measure radioactivity of the fibers using our onboard alpha counter. After the cruise, the student will combine their radioisotope data with physical and biological information to understand the role of the seafloor in altering the physics, chemistry, and biology of the overlying waters.

While the amount of radioactivity we measure is completely harmless, we hope the ‘fallout’ of our results make a real impact!


REU project with Suzanne Strom:

Team Plankton
2019 REU student Delphina (left) pictured with the Strom Lab.

My work broadly encompasses the phytoplankton, micrograzers, and organic carbon cycle in Gulf of Alaska waters. Projects at sea could include experiments to test the salinity tolerance of different micrograzers, or field sampling to look at the occurrence of mixotrophy (photosynthesis and grazing by the same single-celled organisms). If we are unable to go to sea, data analysis projects are possible, including comparison of remote sensing (satellite) and field measurements of phytoplankton biomass and production.


REU project with Seth Danielson:

Prince William Sound is a fjord-rimmed estuary adjacent to the Gulf of Alaska. A shallow sill separates the deep waters within the fjord from the greater Gulf; the deep waters provide sheltered habitat for over-wintering zooplankton. Since before the Exxon Valdez oil spill, physical oceanographic measurements such as temperature and salinity have been taken in Prince William Sound. The REU student will assemble these data from multiple sources, and will compute monthly means and time-series of anomalies. With the data we can investigate: Do the deep waters in PWS get replaced every year? Are there trends in the temperature and salinity properties? How much do the deep subsurface properties vary from one year to the next? The student will gain experience analyzing physical oceanographic data, and will code algorithms in the MATLAB computational environment.


CTD sampling in the Copper River Plume.

REU project with Ana Aguilar-Islas:

Investigating nutrient cycling in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA)

Along with light, nutrients are essential resources for phytoplankton (unicellular primary producers). In the NGA, the availability of macronutrients (i.e., nitrate, phosphate, silicic acid) and micronutrients (e.g., iron, manganese, copper) influence the phytoplankton community structure, which in turn influences higher trophic level communities. Projects at sea could include dissolution experiments from various marine particles, or collection of aerosol samples to investigate the solubility of aerosol-derived micronutrients. If we are unable to go to sea, projects could include analysis of previously collected samples to determine manganese and aluminum content.


REU projects with Russ Hopcroft:

  1. Computers help count zooplankton

NGA-LTER scientists collect millions of zooplankton during our net tows in the Gulf of Alaska. These must be identified into species and counted to order to understand the Gulf’s community structure. But that is tedious work. Therefore, we are teaching computers to do it for us. First, a watertight, flat-bed scanner (ZooScan) creates a digital image of a plankton sample from a net tow. Then software isolates individual images and sorts them into taxonomic groups (or particles and detritus). To teach the software how to do the sorting, scientists create a training set and then double-check the output. The REU student will gain lab experience as they scan and sort samples, and then will have the opportunity to look for differences in communities across stations and cruises.

2. Telling sisters apart

The Gulf of Alaska zooplankton contains many examples of closely related “sibling species”. These species occupy similar niches in the environment, but are slightly different in ways that may create advantages under changing conditions. It is likely that climate change acts by tipping the scales on which sister species are more successful. Unfortunately, zooplankton sampling in previous years did not always differentiate between these sisters. To gain knowledge about how things have changed in the NGA over the years, we hope a detail-oriented REU student will look back through our archived samples. They will help establish the shifting ratio of two keystone copepod species during the first decade of our time series, while they gain experience in microscope work and taxonomic classification. Moreover, we are also open to other small projects that might utilize our historical samples.


REU project with Jennifer Questel

Zooplankton sampling onboard the R/V Sikuliaq.

Zooplankton species that inhabit the world’s oceans are often very difficult to tell apart just by looking at their morphological features under a microscope. In the Gulf of Alaska there are species that look like identical twins, yet their genetic makeup is different, a term referred to as cryptic speciation. DNA barcoding is a tool that allows researchers to identify organisms to the species level and to tell these “twins” apart by analyzing the differences in the cytochrome oxidase I (COI) gene. This project would allow an REU student to focus on DNA barcoding one or more species from various groups of zooplankton of their choice. This student would get to work in both the zooplankton and genetics labs at UAF. They will work with specimens from samples previously collected from the Gulf of Alaska and get the opportunity to collect and pick their organism(s) of choice at sea during the summer LTER cruise. The student will gain experience with extracting DNA from zooplankton and running PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to target and amplify the COI gene. They will also learn how to analyze DNA sequence data and to determine if a species exhibits cryptic speciation. Any sequences generated by the student will be incorporated into a publicly available zooplankton DNA sequence database that is used by researchers worldwide for molecular-based zooplankton studies. No prior knowledge of genetics by the student is needed for their project to be successful.



Although the NGA LTER has a successful record of fieldwork during the COVID-19 pandemic, future research activities may be subject to quarantines, personnel reductions, and other restrictions. We anticipate that conditions allow for broad, in-person REU involvement in 2021. If not, we will pursue other avenues to maintain our 2021 REU program, including remote options.