Inside the Internship: Gonzalez Conducts Environmental Research on Lake Michigan

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Gonzalez stands next to her board of research findings on Lake Michigan.

Written by: Katarina Gonzalez

I spent 10 weeks this summer researching hydrocarbon degrading microorganisms in the sediment of Lake Michigan. There are multiple types of hydrocarbon contaminants in the environment, but my project was specifically focused on crude oil. I did this research as an intern through an organization called the Institute of Great Lakes Research in collaboration with Central Michigan University.

At the beginning of this year, I’d started looking at different research internships that were available for the summer. I found the Institute through the National Science Foundation (NSF) website that houses a database of many available research experiences for undergraduates (REU).

My primary interest in biology is in microbiology and environmental science. My internship required me to research a topic related to environmental concerns at the biological station on Beaver Island in Michigan. Six students were a part of this program, and we were all from different schools. Each of us worked on a different project, but we helped each other collect samples or do field work. 

My project required me to go out into Lake Michigan and collect sediment samples using a ponor sampler (similar to a large claw machine) off of a boat. After collection, I incubated my samples several times with petroleum to promote the growth of the microbes that I wanted, and then I grew them using petri dishes. The purpose of this project was to see if there were any microorganisms in Lake Michigan that could digest crude oil and determine what species were present. It was a great opportunity to use some skills I learned in my microbiology and chemistry courses. The petroleum degradation pathway involves some chemistry knowledge, while the microbes I grew required the laboratory techniques and biology knowledge from class. 

North of the Michigan peninsula is a bridge called the Mackinac Straits, which connects the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. It also acts as a divider between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Below the bridge is an oil pipeline called Enbridge Line 5. This pipeline transports millions of gallons of crude oil, so it would be catastrophic if the pipeline were to burst. In 2018, a wandering anchor dented the pipeline, but luckily, nothing leaked out. This incident stirred public concern about the pipeline, eventually bringing about the need for the project I worked on. 

I loved my time on Beaver Island. I spent a total of eight weeks on the island and two weeks at Central Michigan University. The field station where I worked was wonderful, and the island itself was gorgeous. It did feel a bit like I was camping for eight weeks, but it was a very enjoyable experience. The island and my fellow REU students were the best part of this internship. I’m still in contact with my REU group friends. 

The most challenging part was managing my time so that I wasn’t working all the time. In fact, my entire group had problems with being workaholics, so we really had to learn how to manage that by supporting one another. There were no formal schedules for “work time,” so I could start and finish my work whenever I wanted to during the day or night. The program was modeled similarly to how a person would do research for their master or doctoral degrees. 

This experience solidified my choice to pursue a graduate degree in the future, which I was hesitant about before. I really recommend doing an internship sometime during an undergraduate degree. It puts things into perspective and it’s a fantastic opportunity to learn new things!