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Graduate students COAST through research with the help of their mentor professors

A bit light on cash, master’s biology student Mark LeBlanc looked forward to earning a little money while conducting research in the Torres Lab at Cal State L.A. as a COAST work-study program participant. The opportunity, however, turned into the chance of a lifetime after he potentially discovered a new species of Skogsbergia ostracod.

Photo courtesy of Mark LeBlanc.

While morphologically characterizing ostracod (a crustacean) specimens collected off the Atlantic coast of Panama with CSULA Biology Professor Elizabeth Torres, and comparing them to ostracod samples Torres had collected over the last decade, they realized the species may be the first found in that region of the Caribbean. Genetic differences between already recognized ostracod species confirmed their discovery.

“It was exciting. We discovered genetic and morphological differences between species,” said LeBlanc, a graduate student who is about to complete his Master of Science in biology. “This really made my work in COAST (Council on Ocean Affairs, Science and Technology) rewarding. The program enabled me to have funding to facilitate my research, which would have been hard to do without it. And the end result was great. I’m hoping to publish my research findings in the fall, but we’re still in the early stages.”

California State University’s (CSU) COAST initiative was established in 2008 to integrate system-wide resources and promote interdisciplinary multi-campus collaborations to advance the knowledge of California’s natural coastal and marine resources and the processes that affect them.

California’s coastline, oceans and coastal watersheds face a number of economic, sociological, ecological and technological challenges that require innovative solutions. COAST provides a statewide coordinated response to these challenges through vision, leadership and collaborative support throughout the entire 23-campus CSU system.

At CSULA, COAST assists students in becoming future scientists through a joint STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) pilot program, which was also launched at Humboldt State University. These programs enable students to work one-on-one with faculty to receive in-depth research experience. It also provides the opportunity for students with financial responsibilities to secure the hours necessary for in-depth research and make sufficient progress toward a degree.

“Students are required to submit a plan for research, selected through a competitive process based on merit, and submit reports to the program periodically,” according to CSULA Professor of Chemistry Krishna Foster. “These are the same steps necessary for professionals to secure sustained external funding for their research laboratories. This experience is especially useful to students with the ambition of obtaining a Ph.D. in STEM disciplines.”

COAST also enables undergraduates to work on research that will increase their chances of being accepted into master’s programs, and helps M.S. students build a body of work to include in their theses.

Pictured: Mark LeBlanc.
Mark LeBlanc, a COAST work-study student.

“The program helped me achieve my overall goal of furthering my education in evolutionary biology. The mix of classes and one-on-one time with professors was very good,” said LeBlanc. “Most of what you learn in graduate programs is knowledge that you can employ for the rest of your career, and it’s hard to beat the hands-on experience of working in a lab.”

LeBlanc was one of three M.S. students and one undergraduate who began their COAST work-study program in the fall of 2011 and finished in the spring. In fall 2012, the campus hopes to increase the number of students to 10.

Chemistry graduate student Dero Hovanes studied polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon interaction with marine climate and ocean air moisture with Professor Foster. In the lab, he was responsible for reviewing the literature, learning current sample extraction, and handling and analyzing techniques, which enabled him to successfully draft his thesis.

“During the grant period, I assisted my student on the development of his master’s thesis prospectus,” said Foster. “This important document is designed to direct all of his research activities from this point forward and facilitate the production of a scientifically sound master’s thesis in a timely matter.”

Civil engineering graduate student San Yu Aung, who will also graduate next month, worked in CSULA’s engineering computer laboratory and the Strength and Materials Laboratory with Professor Rupa Purasinghe. His work focused on the structural vulnerability of a pipeline subjected to instantaneous loading, such as earthquake loading at a fault crossing.

“I worked on computer modeling to look for failure-apply loads. The most exciting part of the project for me was the modeling of the pipe,” said Aung. “I know the COAST work-study program will help me in my career. It improved my communication, report writing, and leadership skills, and I had a chance to learn a new computer program.”

Undergraduate Yola Wong was mentored by Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Gustavo Menezes. He believes the research she conducted through the COAST program was invaluable.

“Yola acquired several new skills, including the ability to search through literature, develop research questions, and prepare a research plan. She also worked on lab equipment, identified strategies to minimize experimental errors, and learned how to write a research paper, which was published in a conference paper,” said Menezes. “In fall [2012], Yola will return to the COAST program and begin her M.S. in environmental science. She will also be accepted into a bridge to a doctoral program, which I believe is the result of her experience in the COAST program.”

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Last Update: 01/12/2016