Min Khant Han.

Ready for the Next Step: Underrepresented & Minority Undergrads Wrap Up Their California Sea Grant Internships

The year-long internships focus on kelp recovery, but the opportunity allows students to gain new experiences in science. For some, it’s helping to launch new careers.
Clare Leschin-Hoar

San Diego State University senior Ivanna Arrizon Elizarraras learned that California’s critically important kelp forests were in trouble during class, but it wasn’t something the biology major had given much thought to before. Admittedly, she had her eye on the region’s flashier ocean life like California sea lions, harbor seals, common dolphins or even the occasional grey whale.

But Elizarraras’ interests shifted  after she scored a year-long paid internship with Dr. Matt Edwards, professor of biology at SDSU to work on kelp, as part of California Sea Grant’s Undergraduate Research Experience for Underrepresented Students (CA-SURE) doing lab research—an opportunity that may have altered the budding researcher’s career trajectory.

California’s giant kelp are key to the state’s ocean ecosystems, but have been struggling to recover after a one-two punch of persistent unusually warm water temperatures that killed off much of the kelp, followed by a boom of purple sea urchins that ravaged remaining kelp beds and prevented many coastal areas from bouncing back.

Elizarraras already had some work experience in a lab taking care of sea urchins, so the leap to kelp felt natural. For her, it was the transition to microscopy that was new.

“Dr. Edwards brought some sorus tissue from the kelp into the lab. We used that to grab spores and started growing the kelp in little petri dishes. Then it was all microscope work from that point on,” she says.

As Elizarraras grew more comfortable behind the microscope’s lens watching tiny kelp spores grow, her interest in lab work as a future career began to bud alongside the seaweed.

“Now I know there’s a whole microscopic world out there and it 100 percent opened up a whole new area of interest for me,” says Elizarraras. “I grew up in Tijuana and later San Diego. I had transferred into SDSU from community college. I thought opportunities like this were very limited, and the fact that I got this internship was mind-blowing.”

CA-SURE intern Ivanna Arrizon Elizarraras holds a Pacific sea urchin under her care. Courtesy of Ivanna Arrizon Elizarraras.
CA-SURE intern Ivanna Arrizon Elizarraras holds a Pacific sea urchin under her care. Courtesy of Ivanna Arrizon Elizarraras.

It’s an interest that’s taking root. This fall, she’ll be starting her master’s degree in larval development at California State University, Long Beach.

Elizarraras isn’t alone in gaining new experiences through the CA-SURE program. She’s one of eight students from underrepresented minority demographics wrapping up year-long California Sea Grant internships focused on kelp recovery research while working alongside high quality research mentors at UC Davis, UC Irvine, CSU Monterey Bay, Sonoma State and more.

“We were very intentional about our mentorship. The goal is to give minority and unrepresented students an opportunity to see what’s involved in doing research and working with real data,” says Jenn Caselle, a project principal investigator and research biologist at University of California, Santa Barbara’s Marine Institute.

The students worked on California Sea Grant and Ocean Protection Council-funded kelp recovery projects that included: inbreeding depressions on bull kelp; restoring and future-proofing kelp forests; effects of urchin reproduction, recruitment and herbivory on central coast kelp forests and potential for restoration; kelp restoration using spatio-temporal models of kelp dynamics and more.

“The students learn skills in coursework, but until they’re trying to answer a real, serious and important question (in this case, how researchers can hasten kelp recovery efforts)—that’s when you get them hooked and see the light turn on for a student. The work takes on meaning at that point,” says Caselle.

For Burmese immigrant Min Khant Han, a graduating senior at the University of California, Irvine, the opportunity to work in Dr. Joleah Lamb’s lab as an intern was eye-opening.

“The only lab work I had done prior to this internship was in class,” says Han. “And I’d never done incubation of kelp before. After the internship with Dr. Lamb, my thoughts on kelp switched 180 degrees. Now I see it as a keystone species and a critical habitat for our coastal creatures. The internship helped me see that marine science is really what I want to do in life.”

Inspired, Han obtained his AAUS scientific diver certification so he can continue his fledgling scientific career.

Indeed, reaching a diverse group of interested students like Han and Elizarraras has been key to the CA-SURE program’s success.

“Historically, researchers often took students that came to them or talked to other students. To broaden diversity, you need to reach the students where they are. They may not be in front of you. They won’t already be in your lab. They don’t have access to the same opportunities because they don’t always have the same information, so it’s important to find ways to reach out,” says Caselle. It was also important to provide a stipend to the students.

“Paid internships are important if you’re trying to broaden diversity,” says Caselle. “Not everyone has the financial situation where they can simply volunteer—a practice that can set up inequitable situations.”

Elizarraras says finding paid internships for undergraduates, specifically in marine biology, is uncommon.  “Many places will take in volunteers, but the fact I got a paid internship was amazing and has turned out to be one of the biggest factors for me going forward.

“Being a marine biologist—especially a Mexican marine biologist—is a rare career field. That I’m almost there as a researcher is humbling,” says Elizarraras.

About California Sea Grant

NOAA’s California Sea Grant College Program funds marine research, education and outreach throughout California. Headquartered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, California Sea Grant is one of 34 Sea Grant programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.