University of Vermont

Summer Internship at the Rubenstein Laboratory

Melanie Molewski

Mesocosms used for sampling

The Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory is an extension of the Rubenstein School, which contains research and teaching facilities that focus on the ecological processes and health of the Lake Champlain basin. Housed at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain on the Burlington waterfront, I spent this summer as a Research Assistant Intern helping RSENR graduate student Rebecca Gorney with her research surrounding food web impacts of planktivorous fish in Missisquoi Bay, Lake Champlain.

I helped Rebecca and Research Technician Joe Caron with water sampling from Missisquoi Bay, one of the most eutrophic parts of the lake, near Swanton, VT. Mesocosms (200 liter plastic barrels) were filled with surrounding lake water and different controlled supplies of zooplankton and phytoplankton. Throughout several experimental runs held throughout the summer, the aquatic organisms phosphorus and nitrogen were sampled from the mesocosms. Back at the lab, my role was to count and categorize zooplankton in each sample under a dissecting microscope.

My job seemed straightforward on paper. However, counting microorganisms turned out to be more challenging than I thought. Allow me to explain: zooplankton are small, dead, transparent, phenotypically similar, and sometimes simply invisible unless a glint of light catches them at the right angle. I spent the first few days of my internship working closely with Rebecca to familiarize myself with matching the name to the face under the microscope. After struggling with spending a full hour analyzing one sample (out of 624 over the summer), Rebecca said to me, “In no time, you’ll be spending 20 minutes on one, max.” I laughed and replied, “Yeah, okay,” unaware at how much easier zooplankton taxonomy would get as my internship progressed.

After I became comfortable with my zooplankton friends, I started to zip through counting samples one after the other. I began to see patterns and recognize what my work meant not only in the scientific research aspect, but also for a fellow Lake Champlain recreationist sometimes faced with “Beach Closed” signs due to dangerous algae. Potential connections between the increase in of small species of zooplankton and the absence of large zooplankton became apparent especially as water temperatures rose and blue-green algae blooms thrived. Another research group within the Rubenstein Lab led by Susan Fuller monitors the toxic cyanobacteria in the blooms on Lake Champlain.

Through this amazing opportunity, I learned a lot about my work ethic and ability to challenge myself. Although water sampling was a group effort, I mostly worked by myself counting zooplankton. I discovered that I work well alone and am a very efficient person when I set achievable goals. I also discovered many new music genres I never knew I liked while working in the casual setting of the Rube Lab. My main goal for my summer internship was to gain hands-on, experiential familiarity and knowledge in a laboratory setting. And that is exactly what I learned and much more. Refining my lab skills while working with an ongoing scientific experiment was the perfect combination I was looking for to continue my (now heightened) interest in ecological research and experimentation.