Meredith Leonard and Samuel Doak

Brown Crew
Aquatic biologist Bryan Brown teaches Invertebrate Zoology, a class which culminates in a trip to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Samuel Doak and Meredith Leonard (far left) are pictured here with fellow undergraduates Taylor Silcox, Zach Gajewski, Holly Byers, and then graduate student James Skelton. Image courtesy Bryan Brown.

A look inside: meet two former Fralin summer undergraduate research fellows


Recently, two former Fralin summer fellows were co-authors on a paper that was partly a result of their summer research. The duo -- Meredith Leonard and Samuel Doak -- learned a lot through their experiences with Virginia Tech's Bryan Brown, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science.

Meet Meredith Leonard

Meredith first met Brown as a Virginia Tech sophomore. At that time, she didn’t know much about research in animal behavior, or even what research was in first place. But, then a friend recommended that she consider applying to Fralin’s fellowship program. She was intrigued.

She knew she had an innate interest in animal behavior, so she approached Brown with the possibility of working with him for a summer fellowship.

“From the start, Bryan was interested in me doing my own research project,” said Meredith. “Everyone helps in the lab, but he believes everyone should also find their own passion. Getting to learn my interest and start my own project was game changing.”

Following her interest in animal behavior, Meredith’s research project focused on how the presence of the worms affected the behavior of the crayfish. She spent hours observing how crayfish responded to the worms on their bodies. In a dark room, she watched as crayfish young and old either tolerated the worms, or immediately swatted them off.

As she learned, younger crayfish groom more, so they try and rid their bodies of worms. Older crayfish, however, groom less, so they tolerate more worms.

“Doing this research was beneficial in learning how science could be applied in real life,” she said. “Also, you don’t always get to see the cool things in the world like crayfish behavior unless you do the research.”

Meredith’s hard work paid off, not only as part of her ultimate research project as a summer fellow, but also for Brown and his team to further understand the broader relationship dynamic between the two species.

From the experience with Brown, Meredith developed a passion for sharing science with others and for continuing to examine animal behavior. Her interests have led her to attend the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, where she just finished her first year.

This creature is known as Cambarus chasmodactylus, a species of crayfish that lives in Southern Appalachia (the New River region). Image courtesy Brian Brown.

Meet Samuel Doak

Sam kicked off his two-year tenure in Brown’s lab in the summer of 2013. As a Fralin summer fellow, he spent hours setting up artificial streams to investigate how the types and amounts of worms varied across crayfish. During his experimentation, he compared crayfish shelters to populations of worms to see how the worm communities were affected as crayfish competed for resources.

“Limiting contacts between crayfish can affect how the worm communities interact,” Sam explained.

For the next two years, as Sam continued with Brown, he began to understand how the crayfish-worm relationship is an effective model for application to ecologies of other species. His thinking as part of this experience became the conceptual framework for his master’s research.

As a master’s student in Whales, then, Sam investigated how rocky patches affect algae communities. Thanks to his experience with Brown, this was a breeze.

“My work with Bryan was extremely helpful once I got to graduate school,” said Sam. “I was able to develop an experimental design and fieldwork plan modeled after my initial SURF project. I was better able to visualize what I needed to do, and I knew how to tackle potential problems.”

Now, Sam is pursing work out west in Oregon, where he hopes to work with the state on its river conservation efforts. 

What did our two former SURFers have to say about the program?


What was your favorite thing about the SURF program?  

Meredith: I think my favorite part of the SURF program was the connections I made with my fellow researchers along the way--not only with my research team who I became extremely close with after a summer spent together, but also with my fellow SURF students as well.  I was given the privilege to meet and get to know at least a hundred different individuals who were all doing amazing things that summer, and I think it made the experience that much more enjoyable.  

Sam: My favorite thing about the SURF program was meeting undergraduate scientist from differing fields. The group of people I was working with all had very diverse backgrounds and fields of research. Not only did we all have a great number of things in common, but we also all learned much about everyone’s projects and experiences.

How did working with Bryan and the SURF program contribute to where you are in your career path now?  

Meredith: I think that gaining this feeling that I could give back to the scientific community both in a leadership and research role propelled my desire to give back to the community as a whole--through my veterinary career I'd be putting my knowledge to the test in a real-world application but also give aid to others in need through my efforts.

Sam: Working with Bryan and the SURF project allowed me to realize and explore my passion for community ecology. I was able to study a subject that I was interested in, and provided many of the skills and foundations that I would later use working on my master’s thesis. It was definitely the most influential aspect of my undergraduate career. 

What advice would you give to undergraduates starting the summer program or considering the program?  

Meredith: I would say to never be afraid to follow your passions.  Research can be a wonderful experience that really enforces both your love and your drive for scientific pursuit, but in the wrong field or even on the wrong project, it can be grueling and tedious work.  It's my belief that this program really gives undergraduates the opportunity to choose to do what they love, and I hope that they take advantage of that. 

Sam: I would suggest that they work with their advisor to find an area of research they would like to explore, and a project they are passionate about. Being genuinely interested in the research you are conducting makes all the difference in the world.

Learn more about the Fralin Life Science Institute Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program here!

Posted May 23, 2016 by Cassandra Hockman