Kelly Hattori ('13, Geology)

Photo of Alexa Sterling What do you do for your undergraduate research?

I assist Dr. Patricia Kelley with her expansive research on the changing paleoecology of mollusks during a period of climate change in the Pleistocene. I primarily use ecological variables such as diversity, species richness, and predation levels to determine what the environment at a locality was like and what factors most likely played a part in influencing the types of mollusks that lived there. Reconstructing these paleoecosystems is extremely important as the reconstructions can be used to predict how our modern marine ecosystems will respond to climate change. My Honors research project focused on a more technical aspect of paleoecological studies: the collection methods typically used in predation studies for mollusks and the effects of collector experience with regard to potential sources for bias in a study.

What made you want to pursue an undergraduate research project?

Though the classes at UNCW are great by themselves, I am a firm believer in getting as much real-world experience as possible in conjunction with my education. Research projects allow me to apply what I’ve learned in class to a real problem that no one else has taken on yet – so I have to really work to figure out how to approach the problem and then to draw reasonable conclusions based on my results. At the end of the project, I then get the opportunity to share my results with others and contribute to the paleontology discipline. It’s very rewarding.

How did you start your research project?

During my freshman year at UNCW, I took Dr. Kelley’s Prehistoric Life class as one of my Honors electives. The class got me really interested in paleontological research, so I added Geology onto my academic plan as my second major and began volunteering in Dr. Kelley’s lab. I started out assisting other students with their paleontological projects by helping sieve, sort, and count Pleistocene molluscan fauna. I also worked on projects in other classes taught by Dr. Kelley, and eventually took the lead on my own research project for my Honors thesis. My project was based on a previous pilot study that had been conducted by another undergraduate in 2008. The data from that study were integrated into my project, which had a broader focus and a much larger sample size.

Was doing your own research fun? Be Honest.

Absolutely, I love conducting research! I would have to say that my favorite parts of research are working out solutions to problems in the methodology and interpreting results. Sometimes data collection can get a little tedious (especially when I’ve been measuring thousands of shells for hours and hours) but the good far outweighs the bad. It’s always rewarding to come up with a meaningful conclusion for the question you asked initially – and even better to share that with others who might find your conclusion useful as well.

It isn’t required to do research as an undergrad, so what advantages do you think this experience has provided you?

Conducting my own research was hugely beneficial in strengthening my grasp on the scientific method; I also feel that building the framework for my project improved my problem-solving skills. However, I would say that the greatest advantage that this experience has given me has been the opportunity to present my research at conferences. It’s been enlightening to take my first steps into Academia as a student because I was able to get a preliminary idea of what is expected of professionals in my chosen field. I learned a lot about scientific presentations and the inevitable post-presentation scientific debate, which I think is an essential skill for any graduating science student to have.

What recognition and/or grants did you receive for your research?

I received CSURF grants to present various research projects at three different conferences: the 2012 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Charlotte, NC; the 2013 Southeastern Regional Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and the 2013 Geological Society of America 125th Anniversary Annual Meeting in Denver, CO (coming up in October 2013).

What are your plans after you receive your degree from UNCW?

I will be moving out West and pursuing a few paleontology job opportunities that have been offered to me (assuming that funding is still available)! Once I have acquired more experience and determined where I can be most useful to the paleontology discipline, I’ll go to graduate school.

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