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CMU budding marine biologist finds waves of research opportunities around the globe.

Résumé: Alaska, Galapagos

Senior marine biology major finds CMU puts top research sites within reach

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​A high school student who wants to become a marine biologist might naturally look beyond mid-Michigan to go to college. But as senior biology major Samantha Engster discovered, Central Michigan University offers waves of opportunities to get your feet wet.

Since her arrival as a freshman, the Lapeer, Michigan, native has been scuba diving with sharks in the Galapagos Islands, splashing with sea lions in Alaska and tussling with turtles right here in Michigan.

"Being able to get the experiences as an undergraduate is one of the big draws for CMU," said Bradley Swanson, biology faculty member in the College of Science and Engineering.

"We might not be as large as U-M or MSU, but we have the same quality of opportunities. And students here have a higher likelihood of taking advantage of those opportunities because of the fewer students."

Dolphins, doubt and discovery

Engster's desire to be a marine biologist began at age 10 with a trip to Florida, where she saw handlers working with dolphins. As she grew up she realized that being a marine biologist went way beyond handling dolphins, and she became passionate about conservation and protecting the oceans and the organisms in them.

By high school graduation, the first-generation college student was unsure of how to accomplish her dream and applied only to colleges in Michigan.

CMU offered her a Centralis scholarship, and she accepted.

"But I was just a lost freshman," she said. "I really didn't know how to become a marine biologist."

A chance meeting with a student at a wildlife society meeting put her back on course. Their conversation sent her to her computer, where she looked up the biology department's webpage and saw all the research that was being done.

"That's when I decided what I wanted to do."

Beaver Island and an 'ah-ha' moment

Swanson remembers meeting Engster as a freshman during a one-week class on Beaver Island in May.

"At the end of a full week of field work in the rain, hail and swarms of midges, she came up to me super excited and said, 'This is the kind of stuff I want to do.'"

That got his attention.

She joined his lab as a sophomore and quickly jumped into writing grants and working on research projects. In the past two years, Engster has written and been awarded about $15,000 in research grants and $10,000 in scholarships, allowing her to work on a variety of biology projects, such as:

  • Using radio telemetry to determine if male and female painted turtles use different habitat at the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute in Barry County.
  • Looking at the impact of urbanization on the genetics of snapping and softshell turtles in Minnesota.
  • Studying marine life in the Galapogos Islands.
  • Working with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Alaska Department of Fish and Game researchers examining progesterone levels of Steller sea lions and northern fur seals in Alaska to determine a link between those levels and a drop in pup survival and birth rates. The data from this trip will be the basis of her senior thesis.

Qualities of a good lab worker

These kinds of experiences aren't unique to Engster, Swanson said.

Most biology faculty do research with undergraduates, he said. With each person's lab able to take about six undergraduate researchers, there could be 180 undergraduates working, he said.

But not all students qualify, and he knows what qualities he needs.

"I look for students who want to do more than just the field work, they have to have the drive to write proposals and do the legwork to get research grants," he said.

Swanson and other professors start looking early for standouts. He tries to get students in his lab as freshmen and sophomores to give them time to learn and develop.

"Our faculty want to see all of our students succeed as well as Sam has done," he said.

Now Engster is looking to where she will go to graduate school. One consideration is traveling to south Florida to study sharks.

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