Derek Detweiler ('16, Biology & Geography)

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

I work in Dr. Ai Ning Loh's organic geochemistry lab at the UNCW Center for Marine Science where I am completing my Honors thesis in oceanography. For my project, I am quantifying the amount of carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen that salt marsh sediments either release or sequester on a daily basis; I am comparing these processes between seasons and between vegetated and non-vegetated sediments. I do this by conducting field work in the salt marsh; I collect water samples from enclosed chambers while high tide transitions to low tide. In the lab, I do a lot of work with analyzing samples, synthesizing data, and mathematically determining how much carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen is released or sequestered per day. Ultimately, I hope to use my results to identify their possible implications on the coastal ocean.

What made you want to pursue an undergraduate research project?

I had two main reasons for wanting to pursue an undergraduate research project. First and foremost, I wanted to achieve one of my childhood desires of being a real scientist, and I was able to do just that. I was able to perform every component of the scientific process including asking a question, developing an experiment, conducting the experiment, and drawing significant conclusions. In relation to this, I wanted to use this experience as a confirmation of whether or not my future goals would involve similar experiences; I can say for certain that I now hope for a career in scientific research. As for the second main reason, I simply wanted to make the most out of my college experience by taking advantage of every single opportunity that was presented to me throughout my undergraduate career. For me, it was simply a question of "why would you not?"

How did you start your research project?

I took a course with Dr. Loh in Fall 2014 and became familiar with her research. After doing a class-related project with her in the lab, I became incredibly interested in the questions her lab sought to answer. I talked with her about doing an Honors thesis, and she immediately guided me towards producing a valid scientific question and developing an experiment to answer that question.

Was doing your own research fun? Be Honest.

Doing my own research was loads of fun but also lots of hard work, dedication, and commitment. Yes, I am able to conduct field work, get all muddy in the salt marsh, and take a little dip in the ocean, but that is just a minor part of the overall experience. Once data is collected, it has to be analyzed and interpreted. It requires much critical thinking, and a lot of the time, things will simply not go the way you plan. Ultimately, if you are truly passionate about your project, you will find a way to handle any obstacle and successfully execute your research project.

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

From this experience, I think the greatest advantage was all of the opportunities that seemed to present themselves without having to look too far. I developed so many connections that I was able to make as a result of doing research with Dr. Loh. I feel as if I am ahead of the game in terms of finding a graduate school adviser or finding someone who can write me a letter of recommendation and in terms of gaining practical skills in all aspects of my field. This experience has greatly enhanced my writing, reading, and public speaking skills which make me appear more professional, more ambitious, and more advanced than other students. It shows that I voluntarily challenged myself during my undergraduate career and worked to get the most out of four years in school. It highlights my ability to take initiative, complete tasks thoroughly, and expect a high standard of excellence for myself.

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

I have received the Georgia and Gary Miller Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a CSURF Research Supplies Grant, and a CSURF Travel Award for my research project

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

I currently have a few options I am considering after I receive my B.S. degrees in oceanography and marine biology. Eventually, I'd like to pursue a graduate degree and a career in research at a university or government institution. Ultimately, I would like my research to affect public policy so as to acknowledge the importance of protecting marine environments as a necessary component of a strong and healthy planet. Another option I am considering is applying to the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps in which I would serve under the U.S. Department of Commerce working on a NOAA research vessel! No matter what I do, I'd like my science to take me to different places in order to satisfy my adventurous and intellectual desires.

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