Student, alumna connect for unique internship on Catalina Island

Dec. 19, 2012
Contact: Karen B. Eldridge, Director of Communications
865.981.8207; karen.eldridge@maryvillecollege.edu

Finishing up her requirements for an undergraduate degree this month, Maryville College alumna and biology major Nicole McNabb ’12 is turning her attention to graduate schools.

On the short list of where she would like to study next year is the University of Southern California (USC), where McNabb interned last summer and was guided by Dr. Karla Beard Heidelberg ’88, another MC alumna and USC assistant professor of biological sciences.

“I worked in Karla’s lab and conducted research with one of her graduate students,” McNabb said. “Coming from Maryville College was something for me and Karla to bond over. She was so easy to talk to and understood the education and experience that I was coming from.”

Heidelberg, her husband, Dr. John Heidelberg ’87, and their 12-year-old twins live on Catalina Island, which is located about 20 miles off the coast of Southern California. Their laboratories are a part of USC’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, a 5.5-acre campus located near the town of Two Harbors.

The Heidelbergs have worked at the Wrigley Institute since 2006. John, an associate professor of biological sciences with USC, focuses much of his research on microbial genomics, while Karla’s areas of expertise include marine and environmental microbiology and ecology. She works in diverse parts of the globe including the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, an extreme hypersaline lake in Australia and hydrothermal vent ecosystems on the bottom of the ocean and Antarctica.

McNabb spent the six-week Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) at the Wrigley Institute, evaluating microbes associated with two coldwater soft corals local to southern California.

“Because of the internship, I am more passionate about research in marine biology than before,” she explained. “I’ve applied for several graduate schools, and about half of the programs are focused on marine biology.”

Dr. Drew Crain, professor of biology and McNabb’s Senior Study advisor, said he and his colleagues in the College’s Natural Sciences Division encourage all of their students to obtain off-campus, science-related internships or jobs.

“Summer internships and work experiences are a vital part of the education of any scientist,” he said. “These opportunities show our students how to apply their knowledge to real-world problems. But perhaps more importantly, these experiences help our students clarify vocational choices.”

Rising to the challenge

McNabb, the daughter of Lori and Jeremy Huffaker of Maryville, Tenn., was one of only eight undergraduates from the United States selected for Wrigley Institute’s SURE. Funded by the Rose Hills Foundation, the program provided a stipend of $500 per week, plus room, board and transportation to and from Catalina Island.

“I applied for other [Research Experiences for Undergraduates] across the country, but this one turned out to be better than many of the others,” she said, explaining that all of her expenses related to the internship were covered. “And I learned so much. ”

Heidelberg was not on the selection committee for SURE interns but expressed an interest to the program director in mentoring an undergraduate from a small, liberal arts college.

The MC alumna and USC professor described McNabb as a “fantastic intern” who learned new techniques quickly and was conscientious about both the quality of her contributions to cutting-edge molecular work and the deadlines under which she had to complete projects.

“She was almost always in the lab, out taking samples or at the computer, often well into the night,” Heidelberg said. “She independently handled aspects of her project including literature reviews, ordering supplies, working through new scientific methods, statistically analyzing data and presenting the results in science symposiums.”

McNabb said the work was challenging (often involving 10- and 11-hour days), but it was just what she was looking for to strengthen her applications to graduate schools.

“A huge question to answer throughout an internship like the Wrigley Institute’s SURE is: ‘Can you handle it?,’” McNabb said. “I can. I did.”

“Three-hour labs at the College with a lot of hands-on science prepared me for the internship, but working with the deadlines [at the Wrigley Institute] showed me what graduate school is really going to be like,” she added. “The process was so precise, so meticulous. I had to be disciplined, and I had to figure out a lot of problems on my own.”

Heidelberg and others at the Wrigley Institute told her that molecular work always “looks good” on applications for graduate school in the natural sciences.

“Professional mentoring is an experience that I make sure every intern has when they’re in my laboratory,” Heidelberg said. “Nicole and I talked a lot about ‘next steps’: How do you apply? What schools should you apply to?”

Getting up close with coral

According to McNabb, the interest in gorgonian corals at the Wrigley Institute stem from a massive death of reefs in the Mediterranean Sea in 1999. The coral affected in Europe is related to the cold-water coral located in the waters surrounding Catalina Island.

“Corals make up an ecosystem for other organisms and are important for the benthic habitat structure,” she said. “Their death has serious and severe consequences for other organisms.”

Much of the assistance McNabb provided in the lab had to do with determining the effects of temperature changes on the corals. (The mass mortality event of Mediterranean coral is linked to a rise in ocean temperature.)

“For this project, Nicole learned many molecular and laboratory methods for identifying both prokaryotic and eukaryotic microbes associated with the coral and how microbial communities shift under stress responses,” Heidelberg explained. “A particularly exciting outcome of this work was the discovery of a new eukaryotic endosymbiont in the California golden gorgonian coral that has historically been characterized as azooxanthellate.”

The discovery was presented at the International Coral Reef Symposium in July 2012, which was held in Australia. When the related paper is published in scientific journals, McNabb’s name will appear as a co-author.

In late July, the MC student put together a poster presentation and presented her research at an undergraduate science symposium held on the main campus of USC in Los Angeles, where she worked and lived for the last week of the internship.

Heidelberg said McNabb was a “good public speaker” who effectively engaged with groups when discussing her science.

“And organizing that kind of data for presentation is no small task,” she said, adding that USC faculty members were in attendance at the symposium, as well as other SURE participants.

Enjoying island time

SURE participants balanced work in the lab with some fun island activities. McNabb enjoyed snorkeling, kayaking to remote areas of Catalina Island and running in the hills surrounding Wrigley Institute.

She said she and other interns became really close. They worked together in labs, stayed in residence halls at the institute and ate together in the institute’s dining hall.

Following the internship, McNabb’s mother flew out to California so the two of them could visit family and friends in the west. Heidelberg got to know the family and said she plans to re-connect with them on visits back to East Tennessee. (Her parents, Caron and Kris Beard, live in Friendsville, Tenn.)

Next steps

In addition to USC, McNabb has applied to the University of Florida, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Kentucky.

While the Wrigley Institute opened her eyes to possibilities of studying the effects of climate change on marine organisms, her Senior Study piqued an interest in endocrine disruptors. McNabb’s overarching goal, she explained, is to become a research biologist and study the impact humans have on other organisms and ecosystems.

Wherever she decides to study, both Heidelberg and Crain said they believe she’ll contribute to her field of science.

“It has been very rewarding for me to watch Nicole develop into an independent thinker who is truly excited about questions in science,” Heidelberg said. “ I have no doubts that she will excel as a graduate student.”


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2013 semester is 1,168.