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Undergraduate Researchers

Kate Brundrett

Kate Brundrett, Geography and Environmental Systems

Community Ecology


How did you learn that you could be involved in research as an undergraduate?
I had several friends and acquaintances who were doing research as undergraduates, and I was even part of one friend’s URCAD project my junior year.

Did you know right away what you wanted to do? How did you find your current research position?
When it comes to research, I am interested in just about everything ecology-related. In planning for graduate school, some professors have suggested that I “narrow down” my endless list of interests. I had no idea that this project was going on, but I had been tirelessly applying to extremely competitive internships all over the country. Dr. Swan was one of my go-to professors when I needed a letter of recommendation, so he heard a lot about my big goals in life. When an opening presented itself in his lab, he remembered my interests and my academic performance and offered me the position.

What did you already know about your research topic and techniques before you started? How did you learn everything you needed to know?
I knew very little about my research topic or techniques. Luckily, a lab technician was there to help me. He taught me all of the zooplankton and phytoplankton sampling protocols. Later on, a graduate student in the lab and I hit the books to learn how to identify zooplankton. And this summer I will be traveling to Indiana to meet an expert in the field; he will hopefully help us to work out the final kinks.

How many hours each week do you work on this project? What do you do during that time? Where do you do the research?
This summer I am working between 30 and 40 hours each week on this project and other miscellaneous projects. Sometimes I work in the field at places like Patapsco State Park, and other times I work at the TRC or in the basement of Sondheim. Since the collecting portion of this study is over, I have lately been getting around to identifying the hundreds of zooplankton samples that are preserved in the lab.

What is the most difficult thing you have encountered in your research?
Zooplankton identification is surprisingly difficult, but I get a little bit of a rush from it. When you find something you’ve never seen before, you often spend hours viewing it under the microscope and reading through some dense literature in hopes of being able to identify it. You end up asking yourself, how many tiny hairs are on this one tiny claw on this tiny individual? Everything is so small; and these miniscule creatures don’t look like any animal you might normally see from day to day. It requires some getting used to.

What is the most interesting or unexpected thing you have encountered in your research?
In short, one portion of the research focuses on if/how zooplankton communities respond to road de-icer runoff. To me, this is just one small part of the bigger picture: The things humans take for granted (like salting roads in winter) can lead to such a huge impact on every level of life; a novel environment with novel community dynamics. Essentially, humans are creating a new ecosystem- an urban ecosystem.

On a lighter note, it is absolutely amazing to be able to look under the microscope at a drop of water, only to find that there are countless numbers of living things thriving there! (A great quote by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, " more pleasant sight has met my eye than this, of so many thousands of living creatures in one small drop of water.")

Will you continue working on this project after classes start in September?
Yes, I will continue working on this project and others all throughout the school year.

What would you say to other students about engaging in research as an undergraduate?
Regarding actually coming across a research opportunity, it is well worth the time and effort. There is no harm in asking or applying or just putting yourself out there. Yes, it is discouraging to not get accepted to every position you look in to, but if you have a strong interest, keep with it. And most importantly, talk to your professors. They have some good insights and may even share your interests, which could lead to an opportunity in the future.

What are your plans/goals for after UMBC?
Graduate school is definitely in my future. Where I go heavily depends on the researchers/professors I meet through presenting my research later on. I plan on pursuing more research opportunities in aquatic ecology and community ecology. Plus, I am a fan of fishing and I would love to study ichthyology!