Olivia Husted climbed to nearly the top of Mount Baker in Washington state and looked out over the trees, all the way to Mount Rainier miles away. She marveled over snow turned pink by bacteria. She stood under a waterfall of glacier freshwater.
These experiences all came during just one week of Husted’s 10-week Research Experience for Undergraduate summer program that she completed earlier this year. Husted, a senior biochemistry major at the College of Coastal Georgia, beat incredible odds to earn acceptance into the program at the University of Tennessee, through which she was able to live like a graduate students for a few months.
“It kind of gets you hands-on laboratory experience, as if you were a grad student, so you basically spend 10 weeks in someone’s lab with a grad student,” Husted said. “… You kind of shadow them, and you got put on a project. You did your own research.”
The REU program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, aims to give undergraduate students experience in graduate school-level research. The University of Tennessee program has a 4 percent acceptance rate into the REU program.
“I applied to, I think, 15 programs at the end of the day, and I got into one,” Husted said.
The grant included all-expenses paid while in Knoxville, Tenn., a research trip to Washington and experience working with a professor and graduate students on a research project.
Husted was assigned to a project with a graduate student researching microbiology in ice-covered areas and with a professor studying Antarctic microbiology and climate change.
She traveled with them to Mount Baker in early June to help survey the area on Mount Baker and collect samples of snow and water.
The trip up the mountain required strenuous hiking while carrying pounds of equipment.
“We were basically setting up a makeshift laboratory on this mountain,” Husted said
The mountain was covered in about 15 feet of snow, she said.
“Because the snow was fairly loose, too, if you made a wrong step, you’d slide back 10 feet,” Husted said. “And that just makes you really sad.”
Despite the hardships, though, Husted explained the extensive research her team was able to complete while on the mountain. They collected numerous samples and took readings of water temperatures, sunlight levels, conductivity and more.
“What they wanted to do was get a flat-out survey of the mountain — so what’s going on up here, what kind of bacteria do we have, what are their relative levels, is the glacier doing anything,” Husted said.
Their surveying also aimed to track how climate change may be affecting the mountain’s glacier.
“Another thing we were looking at on top of the mountain was not only what bacteria is living in this super cold environment, but how is climate change affecting specifically the glacier because the glaciers are important sources of freshwater,” Husted said.
As global temperatures rise annually, glaciers are not freezing as quickly and no longer produce as much freshwater, she said.
“In the mountain range we were looking at, some of the glaciers are completely gone, and most of the other ones are receding greatly,” she said.
When Husted returned from the mountain trip to the University of Tennessee, she spent eight weeks analyzing the samples her team collected.
“I was looking at the different snow levels, too, and comparing and contrasting them,” she said.
She returned to the College of Coastal Georgia in the fall and gave a presentation to students about her REU experience. She hoped to inspire other students to pursue the program.
Husted plans to attend grad school and study medical microbiology. She said the REU experience solidified her desire to further her studies in the field. She encouraged others to apply.
“Going into the REU, I knew I wanted to do grad school,” she said. “But after completing the REU, now I’m like, ‘I really want to go to grad school.’”