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2015 Project Menu

Internships at SERC are available for research in the categories listed below. Many projects are offered only during specific seasons while others may be offered year round. You may select from the specific projects listed within these areas and note the season availability of each project, or you may see a listing of internships available by season.

Global Change

Effects of Solar UV Radiation on Aquatic Ecosystems
Season: Spring ,Summer ,Fall
Project Supervisor: Dr. Patrick Neale , Photobiologist

The Photobiology and Solar Radiation laboratory at SERC focuses on solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation and its effects on aquatic photochemistry, phytoplankton activity, carbon cycling, microbial growth, and ecosystem productivity. Concern over the thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer has prompted efforts to both monitor the possible associated increase in solar ultraviolet radiation (specifically the short wavelength UV-B component) and to understand the effects such an increase may have on organisms in natural ecosystems. Both monitoring and research activities are ongoing at SERC. One of our projects studies the response to UV of marine microalgae (phytoplankton) found in shallow regions of the Chesapeake Bay and cultures of Antarctic phytoplankton. The intern involved in this project will learn methods for culture and sampling of phytoplankton, measurement of solar UV, and estimates of photosynthetic rates as a function of the exposure to UV radiation. In another project, we focus on the sources and cycling of colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM), a major reservoir of organic carbon in the ocean and one of the key water constituents determining the underwater UV-visible light field. Exposure to UV-visible sunlight alters CDOM composition and optical properties, and affects its degradability in coastal margin ecosystems. Among our key objectives in this project are determining the quality, dynamics and fate of dissolved organic compounds exported from freshwater and brackish tidal marshes of the Chesapeake Bay, and improve understanding of the effects of marsh tidal exchanges on photochemical and biogeochemical processes in the bay. The intern involved in this project will learn about the impact of marshes and tidal exchanges on carbon cycling and estuarine water optics, and the processes affecting CDOM utilization, transformation and fate in the Chesapeake Bay. Interns will be actively engaged in our research activities, develop their own independent projects, and receive interdisciplinary training in the fields of biogeochemistry, photobiology, estuarine ecology and bio-optics. They will get involved in all phases of the project, including study design, sample collection, laboratory measurements, mathematical modeling and data analysis, and will present a summary of their research results at the end of their project.

Desirable: Interest and knowledge in aquatic science, plant biology, carbon cycling, water optics and physics.

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Microbial Ecology of Mercury Methylation
Season: Summer
Project Supervisor: Dr. Cynthia Gilmour , Microbial Ecologist

What we study: We study the cycling of mercury in the environment, with a focus on the production of methylmercury by bacteria in sediments and wetland soils. Bioaccumulation of methylmercury is the leading cause of fish consumption advisories in the United States. Mercury (Hg) contamination impacts the health and reproduction of predators in wetland and aquatic food webs. The main source of Hg contamination to aquatic ecosystems is the atmosphere, with a number of industries, particularly power plants, contributing to this global problem. We study mercury cycling in many ecosystems, including estuaries, freshwater lakes and watersheds, and wetlands. We also study the mechanisms of mercury methylation by bacteria, and the distribution of mercury-methylating bacteria in nature.

Potential intern projects: Interns can participate in projects that range from field studies to bench chemistry and microbiology. Many recent interns have participated in a long-term research program to track Hg cycling in watersheds and wetlands on the SERC property. Intern projects on the molecular microbial ecology of Hg methylation may also be available. Many intern projects have a field component and lab component that includes analytical chemistry, and/or microbiology. Some projects involve travel within the United States or to Canada.

What we are looking for in interns: Students with majors in chemistry, microbiology or molecular biology/biochemistry, and an interest in how these fields can be applied to solve environmental problems are most suited to our research.  Previous lab and/or field experience is desirable, as is familiarity with data analysis in Excel, and a basic understanding of statistics. Laboratory analytical skills are particularly valuable. For field projects, students should be willing and able to do physical labor and to work under adverse conditions. A drivers license is required, and US citizenship is preferred.

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Wetland Biogeochemistry
Season: Spring ,Summer ,Fall
Project Supervisor: Dr. Patrick Megonigal , Biogeochemist

What We Study
We study element cycling in order to understand the responses of ecosystems to forces such as elevated carbon dioxide, sea level rise, flooding and climate change. We take a holistic approach to these issues by considering the responses of both microorganisms and plants, the two life forms that control the Earth's capture and release of energy in organic compounds. Current focus areas include the effects of elevated carbon dioxide on microbial respiration and microbial community ecology. Most of our projects concern wetland ecosystems. Interns will learn the basics of plant and microbial ecology, with an emphasis on that amazing array of life in wetland soils. They will also be exposed to the methods and instruments used by ecosystem ecologists, such as gas chromatography, infrared gas analysis, ion chromatography, and stable isotopes.

Greenhouse Gases Project
Wetlands, forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems exercise control over Earth's climate by acting as sinks and sources of greenhouse gases. Plants act as sinks by naturally removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while microbes act as sources by returning carbon dioxide and methane. The way we use the land and the water affects the balance of greenhouse gas sources and sinks. A Greenhouse Gas Intern may address applied research questions such as: Does elevated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase the amount of CH4 emitted from wetland? Alternatively, the intern can address basic questions such as: What determines whether soil carbon decomposition will emit carbon dioxide or methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas?

Wetlands in a Future Climate Project
Global changes such as rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, rising nitrogen in estuaries and sea level rise affecting wetland ecosystems now, and will affect them more dramatically in the coming decades. Elevated carbon dioxide increases plant growth and can actually help some coastal wetlands cope with sea level rise. However, it also increases emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas responsible for 20% of global warming. Interns working on Wetlands in a Future Climate can ask questions about the way wetland ecosystems will function in a future world where several factors are changing at the same time. Past interns have done projects on questions such as: Do elevated carbon dioxide and elevated nitrogen in combination increase plant growth and microbial decomposition?, and Will elevated carbon dioxide help wetland soils survive sea level rise by rising upward in elevation?
Desirable: Interest and knowledge in one or more of the following subject areas: climate change issues, soil ecology, nutrient cycling, environmental chemistry, microbial ecology, wetland ecology, hydrology, and plant physiology.

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Landscape Ecology

Landscape Analysis and Ecological Modeling of Watershed Processes
Season: Spring ,Summer ,Fall
Project Supervisor: Dr. Donald Weller , Quantitative Ecologist

We use the quantitative tools of spatial analysis, statistics, and mathematical modeling to explore ecological questions, like the factors controlling nutrient discharges from watersheds, the role of wetlands in moderating nutrient transport, and the relationships between watershed geography and stream condition.

We are developing computer simulation models of nutrient cycling and transport in terrestrial systems, and then analyzing the models to test current understanding and suggest directions for further research. One effort examines nutrient transport through a mosaic of land use patches. We want to know how nutrient retention in individual patches interacts with the spatial arrangement of patch types to give the nutrient loss from the entire landscape. We use simple models of hypothetical landscapes to deduce general principles, and more complex models of real landscapes mapped with computer-based geographic information system (GIS). We are also modeling nutrient cycling in riparian forests. We combine hydrological and nitrogen cycling submodels to help quantify the ecological mechanisms that retain nutrients in riparian forests, and to examine the effects of the retained nutrients on forest vegetation and nutrient cycling. Other projects are using GIS and statistical analyses to relate watershed geography to biological responses in streams and estuaries.  Interns will assist in ongoing model development, programming, analysis, and verification, and complete an independent project in one of these areas. Work may also include library research, GIS analysis, or fieldwork to develop data for running or testing the models.

We also sometimes offer opportunities in GIS analysis. Interns will help to acquire, organize, and analyze spatial information describing landscapes and landscape processes. The data may come from paper maps, aerial photographs, satellite remote sensing, and data that are already in a digital form. Image analysis software and geographic information system (GIS) software are used to enter information into digital databases and then to analyze and display the information. Interns will complete an independent project combining development, analysis, and visual presentation of a spatial data set.

Desirable: Basic knowledge of ecology, geography, statistics, and computer systems. Courses or experience with GIS software (particularly ArcGIS), remote sensing software (particularly ERDAS Imagine), statistical packages (especially SAS), and/or mathematical or computer modeling.

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Tracing the Sources and Fates of Nutrients in the Environment
Season: Spring ,Summer ,Fall
Project Supervisor: Dr. Thomas Jordan , Chemical Ecologist

Excessive inputs of the plant nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus threaten freshwater and saltwater ecosystems worldwide. Over-enrichment with nutrients has led to increases in turbidity, demise of submerged vegetation, depletion of oxygen, and the formation of extensive dead zones in estuarine and coastal waters.

Generally, the supply of phosphorus limits primary production in freshwater while the supply of nitrogen limits primary production in saltwater. In estuaries, where fresh and saltwater mix, either nitrogen or phosphorus may be limiting, depending on position along the seasonally shifting salinity gradient. A number of explanations have been offered for the salinity related change in the relative availability of nitrogen and phosphorus. We are comparing the chemistry of phosphorus in fresh and saltwater sediments to see if sulfur from sea salts induces a conversion of particulate inorganic phosphorus to biologically-available dissolved phosphate, thereby causing the shift in limiting nutrient with increase in salinity.

In recent decades, human activities have roughly doubled the input of biologically available nitrogen to the biosphere. This has had enormous impacts on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The fate of anthropogenic (human-derived) nitrogen on land or in estuaries is poorly understood.  By comparing watersheds with differing land use composition we are investigating the sources of nitrogen discharges in watersheds.  We are also assessing the potential of riparian buffers and wetlands to block nitrogen transport to downstream ecosystems.  Much of our research focuses on denitrification, a microbial process that converts nitrate to gaseous forms of nitrogen that are released to the atmosphere.

Interns will assist in these research projects, conduct their own related independent projects, and present a seminar on their findings to SERC staff.

Desirable: Completed junior or senior year of undergraduate coursework.

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Ecology of Coastal Ecosystems

Estuarine Fish and Invertebrate Ecology
Season: Summer ,Fall
Project Supervisor: Dr. Anson Hines , Marine Ecologist

The goal of this project is to analyze factors regulating the abundance, distribution, and species composition of fish and benthic invertebrates in Chesapeake Bay, especially using the Rhode River subestuary as a model system for long-term tracking seasonal and annual change and conducting experiments on mechanisms regulating populations and communities. Key species and functional groups are examined for correlations with fluctuations in predators, competitors and physical/chemical factors of the estuary. Fieldwork involves benthic core samples, trawling of fish and crabs, conduct of nearshore seining and trapping surveys, and experiments on predation and recruitment. Laboratory work involves feeding experiments with predatory crabs and fish, larval settlement experiments, sorting and processing benthic and fish samples, and data management. Much of the recent work focuses on blue crabs as dominant predators in benthic communities, and as a key fishery species. Field and laboratory experiments analyze the feasibility of stock enhancement of the blue crab population, as well as oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay . The intern will have the opportunity to assist in all phases of field and laboratory work. The intern will also conduct an independent project on some aspect of population biology and community ecology in support of on-going research priorities and grant-funded work. The intern will be expected to summarize his/her accomplishments in a seminar and short written report at the end of the project period. Projects begin in late spring to early summer.

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Marine Invasions Ecology
Season: Spring ,Summer ,Fall
Project Supervisor: Dr. Gregory Ruiz , Estuarine Ecologist

Desirable: Previous experience in invertebrate zoology and/or parasitology
Our lab measures patterns of marine and estuarine non-indigenous species transfer, invasion, and impact. We also test specific and general mechanisms that underlie these patterns and assess the efficacy of management strategies to limit the spread and impact of non-indigenous species. Although our research is focused on marine invertebrate species, we are also interested in the unique opportunities that invasions offer to understand fundamental processes in population, community, and evolutionary ecology. A large component of our research on transfer examines the volume, content, dynamics, and management of ballast water, but we also look into other means of introduction such as the live bait trade and hull fouling. We have several projects that focus on removal of introduced species and basic research on population and community ecology. We also have two research projects that aren’t focused on non-indigenous species: our Nearshore survey and our ocean acidification project. More information on some of our recent projects can be found on the website.

Interns in our lab will participate in all aspects of field and laboratory work and will assist with other projects in the lab as needed. Interns are strongly encouraged to conduct an independent research project and present their findings to the SERC community in an oral presentation and written report. To learn more about the experience of some of our interns see the August 2011 feature story. Desirable: Previous experience with invertebrate zoology.
The following projects are taking on interns this summer:
Nearshore Survey: This is a long term research study on population and community dynamics of shallow water habitats of Chesapeake Bay. Field studies are conducted every summer and include using seine nets, dip nets and tethering techniques to measure abundances of fish, shrimp and blue crab and predator-prey interactions in the Rhode River. Desirable: Previous experience with fishes and/or crustaceans, willingness to spend time in the field and the laboratory, an interest in behavior and population dynamics.
Voyages Project: Temperature and salinity can vary dramatically over the course of a voyage, depending on the ship course and trip duration, creating physiological constraints on hull-fouling organisms. The project is investigating the transportation of non-indigenous marine species on the hulls of commercial ships, focusing in particular on how the fluctuating environmental conditions experienced by trans-oceanic voyages impact survival and fitness. This research incorporates lab-based ecological and evolutionary experiments looking at tolerance to the environmental variables: temperature and salinity, in non-indigenous marine invertebrates. Desirable: Willing to collect animals in the field and perform laboratory work.
Ocean Acidification Project (OAP): This is an interdisciplinary project that examines the role and effects of rising CO2 levels on nearshore ecosystems across different latitudes and on different ecological communities.  OAP utilizes both carbon chemistry and experimental ecology methodologies to study ocean acidification in these habitats, with interns participating in all aspects of the research, from field experiments to executing lab analyses and analyzing data. Desirable: Interest and knowledge in both biology and chemistry or oceanography.
 There may be the opportunity for an intern to work on a project at our lab in Tiburon, California, for the summer.
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Population and Community Ecology

Oyster Restoration and Gelatinous Zooplankton in Chesapeake Bay
Season: Summer
Project Supervisor: Dr. Denise Breitburg , Estuarine Ecologist

The Marine Ecology Lab will conduct lab and field experiments related to the proposed introduction of a non-native oyster to Chesapeake Bay, and will continue research on the ecology of jellyfish and ctenophores. Oysters historically were important both to the ecology and fisheries of Chesapeake Bay, but have declined as a result of a century of overfishing and more recent mortality due to disease. The states of Maryland and Virginia have proposed to introduce a non-native oyster that is more resistant to the diseases that have attacked native oysters. We have several projects that include lab and field experiments to examine potential risks and benefits of the proposed introduction.

Gelatinous zooplankton are dominant predators in the Chesapeake Bay food web. They can control survival of fish eggs and larvae, as well as the abundance of smaller crustacean zooplankton. A wide range of factors influence the abundance, distribution, and importance of gelatinous zooplankton as predators. During 2006, we will continue to study the abundance and distribution of gelatinous zooplankton in the Rhode River near SERC.

In addition to participating in the large-scale ongoing studies, interns will have the opportunity to conduct small-scale investigations in oyster ecology and restoration or gelatinous zooplankton behavior, reproduction, and ecology. Interns interested in ecology, behavior and estuarine restoration are encouraged to apply. A willingness to get wet, dirty and hot are important because of extensive fieldwork. Intern(s) will learn field sampling techniques and experimental design, and depending on the specific project, will become familiar with an array of techniques including measurements of oyster disease prevalence and intensity, culturing fish eggs and larvae, and conducting experiments on ctenophore reproduction. Field and laboratory projects are possible, but participation in field sampling is required. Following data collection, analysis, and interpretation, the intern will provide an oral summary at the end of the summer project period.

Willingness to spend time in the field and laboratory, and use microscopy routinely. Interest in ecology and behavior.

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Plant Ecology
Season: Summer
Project Supervisor: Dr. Dennis Whigham , Plant Ecologist, Dr. Melissa McCormick, Ecologist

The Plant Ecology program focuses broadly on interactions between plants and their environment. We seek interns who are interested in the ecology of terrestrial or wetland plant species. We are specifically interested in students who would work on plant-fungal interactions, especially orchid mycorrhizae, fungal community ecology, the ecology of woodland herbs, the ecology of wetland macrophytes, and the ecology of invasive species. All projects focus on field studies but generally include related laboratory work. Learning and applying laboratory techniques is an especially important aspect of research on orchid-fungal interactions. Students will be expected to base their research project around ongoing research efforts in the laboratory but they should also be prepared to develop, execute and report on a sub-project of their own design.

Invasive Wetland Plants

Common reed (Phragmites australis) has native and non-native lineages in North America. A non-native lineage has been identified as a major invasive species in wetlands. Along the Atlantic Coast, the non-native lineage is common and is spreading in brackish wetlands. Current SERC research focuses on hypotheses about the invasion (establishment and spread) of common reed in Chesapeake Bay brackish wetlands. The project involves field-based sampling and subsequent genetic analyses of the samples. Field-based sampling focuses on evaluating the role of sexual vs. asexual reproduction in Phragmites spread, factors driving seed viability, seed germination, and seedling establishment, and the potential for Phragmites management and successful marsh restoration.

Desirable: Willingness to spend time both in the field and in the lab. Interest in wetland plant community ecology and invasive species biology and ecology. Must be able to handle working long hours in wetlands in hot weather.

Ecology and Conservation of the Threatened Orchid Isotria medeoloides
The orchid Isotria medeoloides (small whorled pogonia) is possibly the rarest orchid in the US. Its center of distribution is in New England, but populations extend along the East Coast into northern Georgia. We are working with the US National Park Service and two military facilities to develop techniques that can be potentially be used to manage and reintroduce this federally threatened orchid in existing and suitable habitats. The intern associated with this project might conduct research associated with the distribution and abundance of mycorrhizal fungi needed by the orchid (using quantitative real-time PCR), genetic diversity of Mid-Atlantic and Southern populations of I. medeoloides (using microsatellites), orchid dependence on their mycorrhizal fungi (carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses), or other related topics. 
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Terrestrial Ecology
Season: Spring ,Summer ,Fall
Project Supervisor: Dr. John Parker , Ecologist

Research in the Terrestrial Ecology lab focuses on the consequences of global change for biotic interactions. How will biodiversity loss alter the structure, functioning, and persistence of ecological communities? What factors drive invasions by non-native speices? What are the ecological and evolutionary consequences of altered selection regimes? And, finally can an understanding of these complex, ecological interactions be used to inform conservation and management of natural ecosystems? We try to answer these questions by integrating field experiments with behavioral biology, natural products chemistry, phylogenetics, quantitative genetics, and synthetic statistical analyses.

Recent research themes include: (1) impacts of herbivores on plant diversity and invasions, (2) chemical ecology of plant-herbivore interactions, and (3) effects of biodiversity on populations, communities, and ecosystems. Much of our current projects are conducted in terrestrial communities in the temperate zone, but we have recently begun exploring the impacts of biotic interactions in tropical mangrove forests. Undergraduate interns in my lab are responsible for daily project activities and an oral presentation of results at the end of the internship. Hard-working and self-motivated interns will be given the opportunity to produce a publishable manuscript describing their project.
Desirable skillsets: Basic knowledge of ecology and evolution, plant identification, behavioral biology, chemical ecology, invasive species biology, and the ability to work in both field and laboratory conditions.

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Environmental Education

Citizen Science
Season: Summer ,Fall
Project Supervisor: Dr. Alison Cawood , Citizen Science Coordinator

Citizen science is the active participation of volunteers in scientific research. It can take the form of collecting data, working alongside researchers in the lab and the field, and communicating project results. At SERC, citizen scientists engage in projects ranging from archaeology to invasive species research. Citizen science project coordination involves a wide range of activities, including volunteer recruitment, training, and management, communicating the methods and results of SERC citizen science projects to volunteers and to members of the public orally and in writing, working with scientists to identify roles for volunteers in their research, and tracking the progress of ongoing citizen science projects.

Internship: The citizen science intern will have the opportunity to work on a wide range of citizen science projects, involving a variety of labs and topics, over the course of the internship. Responsibilities will include working with adult and student volunteers in the field, participating in volunteer training activities, creating content for the citizen science project webpages, and working with partner organizations to implement citizen science activities.
Desired Qualifications: Interest in citizen science, science outreach, science communication, or science education. Strong communication (written and oral) and interpersonal skills. Strong scientific background (college-level coursework in natural sciences), although the applicant does not have to be a science major. Willingness and ability to work in field conditions in hot weather. Teaching and/or volunteer management experience is a plus.
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Environmental Education Department
Season: Spring ,Summer ,Fall
Project Supervisor: Mark Haddon , Director of Education

The Education Department is challenged with interpreting and disseminating Smithsonian environmental research findings to a wide range of audiences including K-12 students and teachers, undergraduate and graduate students, professionals, and the general public. Interns play an integral role in helping staff develop and implement activities, programs, guide books, workbooks, web pages, and interactive video conferences. Applicants interested in education internships should feel comfortable talking to small and large groups of people. Interns are given opportunities to learn content material pertaining to ecosystems in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and basin and are trained in teaching methods. Desire to be an informal environmental science instructor using canoes and boats, and/or trails and docks is a must.

Interns will be instructed on procedures within the Education Deptartment and be expected to complete safety training. Interns will be assessed on their ability to work as a team member in the Department, demonstrate program leadership, and show responsibility in student supervision. For further information at SERC's education programs go to

Desirable: Applicants majoring in environmental education or environmental science.

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Science Writing and Communications
Season: Summer
Project Supervisor: Kristen Minogue , Science Writer

The science writing internship is for anyone who loves learning about science and sharing it with nonscientists. Communications at SERC covers a wide range of activities: media outreach, Web updates, newsletters, social media and blogging. In addition to pitching stories to mainstream media outlets, the communications desk also keeps in touch with the larger Smithsonian communications offices on the Mall. It manages the look and content of the SERC homepage ( and the Shorelines blog, which hosts stories on the research and discoveries of SERC scientists. It also maintains social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter (@SmithsonianEnv) and Tumblr. Its main product, the Shorelines newsletter, highlights the most important stories from SERC scientists and educators every spring, summer and fall.

Internship: The science writing intern will gain experience with all facets of SERC communication. Main priorities include going out in the field with research scientists and interns, taking photos and writing blog pieces about their projects. Other responsibilities include working with the SERC communications officer to manage SERC’s social media accounts, produce the summer newsletter and update the SERC website. The intern will also gain exposure to the wider world of Smithsonian communications through monthly meetings on the Mall.
Desired Qualifications: Strong scientific background (natural sciences coursework; not required to be a science major) and skill writing about science for a nonscientific audience. One to three published or unpublished writing samples explaining science for general readers are essential to include with the essay part of the application. Ability to use Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint) required; familiarity with HTML, CSS, Adobe Photoshop and Drupal a plus.
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