Friday Harbor Laboratories
Revised: 01-22-2014

Blinks - NSF REU - BEACON Internship Program

Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Integrative Biology and Ecology of Marine Organisms

Application deadline: March 1, 2014

Program dates: June 16 to August 9, 2014

Program Description

Friday Harbor Laboratories' Blinks - NSF REU - BEACON Summer Internship Program seeks to link undergraduate students with scientist-mentors as collaborators in marine science research projects. The program takes advantage of the pristine environment, remarkable biodiversity, and the scientific and technical resources at University of Washington's marine science research facility. We have combined the NSF REU program with the Blinks Research Fellowship program, which targets groups who are historically underrepresented in the marine sciences, with the NSF-funded BEACON Program. With additional support from the United Negro College Fund, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the American Society for Cell Biology, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, and the Anne Hof Blinks Memorial Fellowship, the Blinks-REU Program offers a full immersion research experience for motivated undergraduates, post-baccalaureates and graduate students. In keeping with the University of Washington's policy of encouraging diversity in its student body including underrepresented groups, the program seeks 10-15 students of diverse backgrounds and interests to participate in a eight to twelve week summer research project in the marine sciences. By linking fellows with marine scientists in a 1:1 research experience, fellows learn both the process and the substance of scientific research. As the research progresses, fellows will be encouraged to become semi-independent collaborators. The experience will expose fellows to the life and work of a marine science research laboratory. The program will incorporate workshops, seminars and training sessions in addition to hands-on research.

The mentors and projects vary from year to year according to the developing research interests of faculty and students. Research projects are designed by the scientists to be achievable projects which dovetail with their research plans. Project descriptions are posted below. Fellows will work semi-independently for approximately 40 hours per week.

For summer 2014, the BEACON Program funding will augment the REU funding.

As participants in the FHL community, students will participate actively in FHL community activities, e.g. attend the weekly seminars, eat in the Dining Hall and live in the student dormitory. Early in the summer session, there will be a meeting of student participants with graduate students and mentors to share perspectives on graduate programs and participation in academic life, with a brief description of ongoing projects, and a question/answer session. At the end of their internship, fellows will present their research in a short powerpoint talk. Fellows will also write a scientific paper describing their work, and revise it based upon feedback from the mentor.

The Setting

Friday Harbor Labs is University of Washington's marine science field research station. Located north of Puget Sound in the San Juan Islands, FHL takes advantage of a remarkable diversity of marine habitats and organisms. FHL hosts 10-12 courses per year and approximately 100 independent researchers during the year. The 484 acre campus is the site for thirteen lab buildings, a dining hall, 3 dorms and other housing units.

Research at FHL emphasizes marine invertebrate zoology, phycology, fisheries science, conservation biology, cell and molecular biology, biomedical sciences, oceanography and other scientific disciplines. Investigators and students use diversified field resources as well as modern analytical technologies such as a nucleotide sequencer, scanning laser confocal microscopes, scintillation counter, centrifuges, HPLC, TEM, SEM and other equipment. Friday Harbor Labs is equipped with a 58' research vessel, numerous smaller boats, cold rooms, and an extensive seawater system serving numerous lab buildings. The facility includes a computer lab, networked research labs, wi-fi connectivity, a well equipped stockroom, a 17,000 volume library, and SCUBA facilities.

Financial Support

Participants will be provided with financial support to meet costs of room, board, round trip travel and a monthly stipend.


The NSF REU Site grant supports U.S. citizens or permanent residents during their undergraduate careers. The Blinks Endowment supports students who bring diversity to the FHL student body in any phase of their undergraduate or graduate career.

To Apply


Questions may be directed to

Students who are selected will be notified in late March.

FAQs about FHL

REU Project Descriptions for 2014

How a little fish deals with crushing waves and challenging surfaces - Exploring the natural environment of Northern Clingfish (Gobiesox maeandricus).

Dr. Petra Ditsche
UW - Friday Harbor Laboratories

Northern Clingfish colonizes the rocky intertidal of the Pacific Northwest. It lives among the wave-swept boulders, using an adhesive suction disc to prevent being washed away. These little fish stick so well that they can launch predatory attacks on the archetypal attached marine invertebrate – the limpet. The substrates in the rocky intertidal are challenging as they show various surface topographies, from nearly smooth to very rough. Our previous work shows that the surface roughness of the substrate has a significant effect on the adhesive force of Northern Clingfish. Actually, we found that the fish can stick even better to rough surfaces compared to smooth ones. They can attach up to very rough surface topographies, but the threshold roughness depends on the size of the fish. Moreover, in aquatic environments, solid substrates are fouled by bacteria, algae and invertebrates.

This kind or growth changes the elasticity and surface roughness of the primary substrate. We could already show that this growth changes the attachment strength of Northern Clingfish. All this previous work was done under controlled conditions in the laboratory.

Now, the aim of the planned study is to get more detailed information about the relevant environmental parameters of the natural habitat of Northern Clingfish and compare this with our previous knowledge. Therefore, we will choose a well known Clingfish habitat on San Juan Island for further investigation. The environmental parameters, which we will study in detail, are the surface roughness and the rate of fouling of the natural boulders. We will also use methods to describe the flow velocity. Underwater videotaping will help us to understand the behavior of Northern Clingfish in its natural habitat.

The students will engage in a supervised practical research experience and learn more about scientific thinking and the process of becoming a professional scientist. Prerequisites are an appropriate background in biological or environmental sciences and a high interest in solving questions.

The effects of phytoplankton patches and fluctuating salinity on protein expression and the behavior of echinoderm larvae in haloclines.

Dr. Sophie George
Georgia Southern University

A regular occurring event in the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest is a decrease in salinity to less than 15‰ in some areas, as a result of increased precipitation and ice melts during the spring and summer months. George and Walker (2007) and Pia, Johnson, and George (2012) observed salinity-induced morphological changes for Dendraster excentricus (top right) and Pisaster ochraceus larvae (bottom left). For example, Pisaster larvae reared at 20‰ were shorter and wider while those reared at 32‰ were longer and slender.

The development to metamorphosis and the production of juveniles by larvae exposed to 20‰ (bottom right, juvenile P. ochraceus) in of itself is intriguing given that these species cannot regulate the osmolarity and ion content of their internal fluids. These studies indicate that the timing, magnitude and duration of ice melts and rainfall in the Pacific Northwest could alter larval morphology, larval feeding and swimming, and possibly the quality of new P. ochraceus recruits into the intertidal zone. During the summer of 2014, research will continue looking at larval behavior of P. ochraceus in haloclines with and without food. Students will also investigate the effect of intense salinity fluctuations on protein expression in P. ocraceus larvae.

Knowledge on the physiological mechanisms behind observed morphological changes and behavioral differences in haloclines would enhance our understanding of how echinoderm larvae will respond to intense fluctuations in surface salinity as our climate changes.

The participating student would learn to prepare algal cultures; rear larvae to metamorphic competency, observe larvae in haloclines, prepare samples for protein determination and gel electrophoresis, and photograph larvae from the various treatments.

Past students have presented their research at regional (GAS) and international meetings (SICB), and are coauthors on 3 recent articles from research at FHL with two in preparation:

Can a sculpin jaw work like a catapult?

Dr. Nick Gidmark
University of Washington - Friday Harbor Laboratories

Catapults work because a great deal of energy is loaded into a spring mechanism and then released all at once. This same mechanism works for a bow-and-arrow, and is also the way that frogs jump as far as they do. By releasing large amounts of energy in a short period of time, frog legs can produce the high-power movements necessary to jump many body lengths, more powerful than their muscles could create on their own. By studying jaws, muscles, and elastic elements in sculpins, I hope to find elastic mechanisms in that muscle-skeleton system, too. Sculpins have been shown to be experimentally tractable in FHL labs before, and they have huge jaw muscles, making them perfect for our studies of muscle function during feeding.

What you'll need: I can teach you everything you need to know for this project, so the only necessary qualifications are the ability to work hard and absolute dedication to having fun. If you have any experience with animal husbandry, dissection, photography/videography, animal surgery, or excel, that's a plus. In short, all you need is a good attitude and we'll figure the rest out.

What we'll do: To study these mechanisms, we have to understand how muscles function in a living organism. So, we'll catch sculpins (if we don't already have them in lab) and get them accustomed to the laboratory environment. Then, we'll train them to feed reliably in our experimental setup. Once the fish are comfortable, we will anesthetize the animal and surgically implant transducers to measure muscle firing patterns, muscle length, and gape. Once the animal wakes up and recovers from the surgery, we will use high-speed videography to record feeding movements, and our implanted transducers to record muscle activity and length over time. We will then analyze these data in excel or other data analysis programs such as MatLab.

What you'll get: The goal of this research will be a scientific publication, so our endeavors will be geared to that end. Co-authoring a publication is a great resume or CV builder, not to mention a great tool to improve your writing skill. Experience with animal surgery will improve your skill as an anatomist, and give you experimental tools that very few people have. Most importantly, you'll gain an appreciation for vertebrate muscle-skeletal anatomy that can be related back to any organism you choose including your own body!

Sexual selection on the seashore: Mating systems of marine arthropods.

Dr. Vik Iyengar
Biology Department, Villanova University

Arthropods are the most abundant and diverse group in the animal kingdom – they occupy nearly every ecological niche in marine, freshwater and terrestrial habitats. Their extraordinary evolutionary success can be partly attributed to the remarkable diversity of mating systems found in arthropods. I am primarily interested in sexual selection, particularly within species that are sexually dimorphic – that is, where strong competition for mates has ultimately lead to divergence in the appearance of males and females. Exaggerated male traits can be the result of female choice, where females mate preferentially based on the male's expression of these traits, male competition, where males use armaments in intrasexual battles for access to females, or a combination of both. In such mating systems, males usually compete with each other for females in contests usually determined by differences in body size or weaponry which dictate fighting ability. Males may compete directly for access to females or may instead control resources essential for female survival and reproduction.

Earwigs are a model system for studying competition and reproductive behavior because they are distinguished by their possession of weapons (“forceps”), their high degree of maternal care (females aggressively guarding eggs and juveniles), and high densities that promote frequent interaction. In most earwigs, both sexes use their forceps to capture prey, and female earwigs are usually larger than males, presumably due to a fecundity advantage seen in many arthropods

The maritime earwig Anisolabis maritima is unusual among the order Dermaptera, and this insect is particularly well-suited for studies of sexual selection because males differ markedly from females in both body size (males are more variable in size, and often substantially larger, than females) and weaponry (males possess asymmetrical, curved forceps whereas females have straight forceps; see photo). Furthermore, while females often kill conspecifics by using their forceps like scissors, males usually resolve their disputes non-lethally by squeezing each other’s abdomens, perhaps a means to assess strength and fighting ability (see diagram from Muñoz & Zink 2012).

During the summer of 2014, I will continue lab and field investigations of the mating system of A. maritima by: (1) following up on last year’s results to determine the roles of sex, size and weaponry on one-on-one competition for shelters and food; (2) staging trials of trios to determine the relative roles of intrasexual competition vs. intersexual mating preferences; and (3) examining the spatial distribution within larger groups to determine how same-sex and mixed-sex interactions affect distribution patterns observed in the field.

Submarine Groundwater Discharge – the hidden vector for land / sea exchange.

Dr. Rebecca Lyons
University of Redlands

Dr. Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria
University of Washington
UW-Friday Harbor Laboratories

Dr. Peter Swarzenski
US Geological Service

Submarine groundwater discharge (SGD) has been recognized as a process that can directly influence coastal material budgets and drive ecosystem change. For example, the discharge of nutrient-enriched groundwater into coastal waters may contribute significantly to eutrophication, the evolution of harmful algal blooms, and the transport of micro-organisms. Similarly, SGD can also impact the availability of fresh water as a finite resource to coastal communities, degrade fragile coastal ecosystems such as estuaries and coral reefs, and influence geomorphology of shoreline features. The impact of SGD to nearshore systems is ubiquitous; volcanic, karstic/carbonate, sedimentary, and igneous coastal settings are all variably influenced by the discharge of groundwater into the sea. Today there is growing consensus that the impacts of SGD can be measured in terms of diminished ecosystem health and associated services, including declines in (shell) fisheries and other societally relevant economies.

Image: Schematic depiction of processes associated with coastal groundwater discharge.

Locations of groundwater discharge can be inferred using land-based or streaming resistivity techniques, which detect changes in the salinity structure below the sediment-water interface based on electrical resistance. This technique complements more conventional geophysical approaches (sidescan, multi-beam, sub-bottom acoustics) for mapping the surficial and subsurface geology, thereby developing a SGD-based hydrogeologic framework. New instruments capable of rapid, sensitive determination of radon (222Rn), a noble gas that is greatly enriched in groundwater relative to seawater, can both pinpoint locations of enhanced groundwater discharge (survey-mode) and rates of integrated SGD (time-series mode). Autonomous seepage meters use an electromagnet to determine bidirectional SGD rates continuously. Multi-port piezometers and related equipment, including drill platforms, allow samples of submarine groundwater to be collected at different depth intervals relative to sea level. These samples can then be analyzed for a suite of geochemical properties such as salinity, nutrients, trace elements, dissolved organic carbon, and human-derived dissolved gases. Residence times and fingerprinting of coastal waters can be derived from four naturally occurring radium isotopes using either a combination of new scintillation techniques or specialized gamma spectroscopy techniques. A full complement of these instruments is available to further advance our understanding of SGD and its role in coastal ecosystems.

Specific examples of research areas where SGD studies can help to solve interdisciplinary problems include: i) assessment of the redox- and microbially controlled delivery of SGD-borne nutrients and trace elements (linking the fields of geochemistry and coastal hydrogeology), ii) evaluation of coastal ecosystem change in response to variable SGD (linking the fields of biology, ecology, and biogeochemistry to coastal hydrogeology and meteorology), iii) examination of SGD-breached shorefaces and the influence of SGD associated with paleo-channels (linking the fields of coastal geology and geomorphology to coastal hydrology), and iv) developing the capability to predict/forecast SGD impacts.

Current SGD projects span the western U.S. states and include Puget Sound, Alaska (Prince William Sound), California (Santa Barbara, Malibu, Santa Cruz, San Francisco Bay, Monterey Bay, Lake Arrowhead), and Hawai'i (Oahu, Hawai’i, and Maui), as well as international efforts.

Image: SGD expressions.

Testing aquatic adhesion systems in tube worms.

Metamorphic larva.

Dr. Rachel Merz
Swarthmore College

Examining how organisms move through water has long been studied both to understand the lives and evolution of swimming organisms and to evaluate the mechanisms they use, in some cases for potential application to human needs. What is much less well known is how aquatic organisms hang on to wet surfaces - knowing how organisms meet this mechanical challenge is important for the same reasons to understand how the animals work and to look for possible applications for other uses.

Building on my previous research on the architecture of worm tubes and polychaete morphology, the task this summer will be to quantify the frictional interaction between the bodies of tube-dwelling worms and tube walls where those tube walls are both natural and artificially constructed to vary texture. We already have good data on the morphology and ability of these worms to adhere to the insides of their natural tubes, what we want to do this summer is to compare the behavior and ability of worms in their natural tubes and artificial tubes made with different surface qualities. Accomplishing this goal will likely require careful observation of the worms in order to design good experiments and construct experimental apparatus. It will also involve video analysis and use of scanning electron microscopy.

Neuroethology: How brains control behavior. A study of the orange brain of a toxic sea slug.

Tritonia nudibranch.

Dr. Jim Murray
Cal State University, East Bay

This internship will focus on learning techniques in neuroethological research such as behavioral recording and analysis, recording electrical signals from brain and nerve, cell injection, and confocal fluorescent microscopy of neural structures. Research will focus on the nudibranch sea slug Tritonia diomedea because it is most amenable to neuroethological analysis, but will also extend to related species of opisthobranch as part of the comparative approach.

The Tritonia sea slug has served as a model system in neuroethology, i.e. relating the activities of multiple nerve cells to behavior in a natural context. In particular, we will investigate the neural basis of navigation using Tritonia to tidal flow, odors of food, mates, and predators, as well as the geomagnetic field. Because the nervous system is easily accessible and composed of relatively large cells, we will identify brain cells that are involved in sensing stimuli, and effecting crawling and turning.

One of the major advantages of teaching with the Tritonia model is that its large, orange neurons make learning to record from the central nervous system relatively easier compared to other species. The intern will also learn how to control magnetic fields, track animal movement using cameras, how to analyze video of body movement on a computer, and how to correlate movement with neural activity. This sea slug specializes in eating coral prey that are toxic to most other animals, so we are also investigating its chemical ecology and how it protects itself from toxins.

Impacts of ocean acidification on metamorphosis.

Tritonia nudibranch.

Dr. Tony Pires
Dickinson College

Rising atmospheric levels of CO2 are expected to lead to substantial lowering of ocean pH within the next century. Impacts of ocean acidification (OA) are being intensively studied at FHL and at other laboratories around the world, particularly with respect to organisms that make calcareous skeletons that become more difficult to grow and maintain in acidified conditions. Many studies have focused on veliger larvae of molluscs, because of the ecological and economic importance of these animals. Although many studies have documented OA effects on larval growth and survival, few have focused attention on the critical life history transition of metamorphosis, when pelagic larvae become benthic juveniles. This is a pressing area for research, in two respects. First, it is clear that larval experience may have profound “carryover” effects on juveniles (1). Second, settlement to the substrate and subsequent metamorphosis are mediated by larval sensory physiology, which may itself be affected by OA (2).

In the summer of 2014 we will study metamorphosis of the gastropod, Crepidula fornicata, in the context of OA. How does acidification affect the acquisition of competence for metamorphosis, the neurobehavioral responses to environmental cues that induce settlement and metamorphosis, and post-metamorphic juvenile performance? C. fornicata is an ideal animal for this research. Much baseline information is already known about its development, metamorphosis, and life history. The veligers are large (up to 1.5 mm), easily cultured, and amenable to ecologically-relevant behavioral and neurophysiological experiments (3). Furthermore, C. fornicata is native to the eastern U.S. but has become established as a non-native species in many parts of the world (including Washington), and is of great interest as an invasive species in changing ecosystems (4). In this project students will learn elements of experimental design, as well as methods of larval culture, carbonate chemistry, metamorphosis assays, and video and electrophysiological techniques for behavior analysis.

(1) Pechenik JA (2006) Integr Comp Biol 46: 323-333.
(2) Munday PL et al. (2009) PNAS 106: 1848–1852.
(3) Penniman JA et al. (2013) Invertebr Biol 132: 14-26.
(4) Bohn K, Richardson C (2012) Mar Biol 159: 2091-2103.

Community Assembly and Spatial Interactions in the Rocky Subtidal Zone.

Dr. Ken Sebens
University of Washington

Subtidal communities in temperate geographic zones of the world are faced with changes caused by harvesting, climate change, habitat alteration and invasive species, yet we know fairly little about their community dynamics and how they are being altered. Our research aims to investigate long term change in subtidal communities, effects of water flow and substratum orientation on community assembly, and the interactions between rocky subtidal communities and adjacent soft-substratum habitats. The project will make use of a 7 year data set from subtidal sites in the Salish Sea (San Juan Islands), sampled continuously by the PI and collaborators.

Our recent work determined the importance of water flow and sediment accumulation structuring these subtidal communities, and we propose to follow up on this work with detailed studies of flow environments, species assemblages, and experimental analyses of flow effects and of aspect (orientation to flow) of rock surfaces. We will also examine artificial rock structures in the subtidal zone, which are becoming increasingly common in coastal environments, including Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. Kelp population dynamics will be an additional focus of this year’s research. Applicants must be AAUS certified research divers to take part in the field research.

The effect of tooth arrangement on the ability to fracture prey.

Dr. Adam Summers, Stephanie Crofts
University of Washington,

There is an arms race between durophagous organisms, animals that eat hard prey items, and their prey. This is well studied in shelled organisms, which have developed a number of morphological innovations to deter predators. Durophagous predators, however, are less well studied; my research focuses on changes in durophagous teeth over time. Teeth play an important role in the capture and processing of prey so it is not surprising that tooth morphology is closely correlated with diet.

Previous work has demonstrated that some tooth morphologies, those with convex surfaces or tall thin cusps, are better able to break shells than others, when tested as individual units. However, teeth do not work as individual units, but instead exist as sets.

The arrangement of teeth is not universal, and changes over time. For example, the dental region of Placodontid reptiles, extinct marine reptiles that are thought to have eaten hard prey, is modified throughout their phylogeny. Basal stem lineages have distinct maxillary and premaxillary teeth, in lines along the outside of the oral cavity, and palatal teeth, forming a crushing plate on the roof of the mouth. In contrast, more derived crown groups have shifted maxillary teeth to become a part of an expanded palatal tooth plate.

The goals of this study are to determine the ability to fracture prey on the load needed to fracture prey, and if/how tooth arrangement interacts with tooth morphology to optimize prey fracture. To test this, we will use crushing platens with variable tooth arrangements to measure the force needed to break shells. In addition to leaning basic biomechanics and materials testing, a participating student will be expected to learn some 3D modelling, as well as how to use Rapid-prototyping and 3D milling equipment.

BEACON Program Internships.

Dr. Billie Swalla
University of Washington

The BEACON Program will fund up to four students. They will work under the supervision of Dr. Billie Swalla.

Metamorphic larva.

Feedback between form and function in colonial animals

Dr. Michaelangelo von Dassow
Duke University Marine Lab

Sheet-like bryozoan colonies are an excellent system for studying feedback between physiological signals and development. The colonies consist of a sheet of connected individuals which feed by capturing particles from water that they pump into the colony. A colony-wide transport system, with regularly spaced chimneys, lets the water flow back out of the colony. New chimneys form at sites with high water flow at the growing edge of the colony (von Dassow, 2006). The chimneys in turn direct flow through the colony. This feedback between flow and development is convergent with flow-regulation of vessel diameter in vertebrate blood vessels and plasmodial slime molds, despite vast differences in structure and function among these systems.

My current project goals include identifying mechanisms that stabilize system pattern (e.g. chimney positions), and determining how this feedback process affects system performance (e.g. feeding) and responses to natural perturbations (e.g. injuries). Principles identified in bryozoans may apply to other systems that show feedback between function and development, including the circulatory, skeletal, and nervous systems, the cytoskeleton, and support systems in plants.

The student is encouraged to take the project in new directions. The student will gain experience designing, conducting, and analyzing experiments in organismal biomechanics, while working with a fascinating and beautiful organism. Please note that competence with basic math, physics, and biology is essential. For example, the applicant should be comfortable with unit conversions, microscope use, and logarithms and derivatives. The statement of interest should clearly explain how the subject of this project connects to her/his interests.

von Dassow, M., 2006. Function-dependent development in a colonial animal. Biological Bulletin 211, 76-82.

Image: Bryozoan colonies (Membranipora). Top: plan view (~3 cm wide); Bottom: cross section (colored streaks show flow). Photos by Dr. Mickey von Dassow.