Student Spotlight: Sarah Tucker ’13

8 Mar

Sarah is a Biology major, Environmental Science and Policy minor, but upon meeting her you wouldn’t be able to tell that she spends most of her time with marine animals.

ImageSarah’s fascination with marine biology started at an early age. Coming from a family of sailors, she spent a lot of time outdoors, encouraged to explore the environment; she was five when she decided she wanted to be a scientist. This fascination only deepened as she got older. A string of inspirational biology teachers often encouraged her to participate in science fairs and projects. It is no surprise then that Sarah was later selected by Smith College to participate in the Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering, and Sciences program on campus.

As a first-year, Sarah started doing research with Professor David Smith, professor of biological sciences. This experience propelled her into an internship supported by a Clark Science Center Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship for the summer before her sophomore year. Much of the research Sarah did then was on phenotypic plasticity, the ability of an organism, in this case an invasive crab species in the Gulf of Maine, to modify its phenotype in response to the environment. She has continued this research through a year-long honors thesis, with David Smith and Laura Katz, also a professor in the Biological Sciences, as faculty advisers. Image

Sarah explained the process and challenges of doing work in the field of marine science. Part of the research she does compares the morphology and genetics of northern and southern Gulf of Maine green crab populations. As the green crab expanded its range into the Gulf of Maine, it has faced a broad range of environmental conditions that continuously challenged its survival.  The crab adapted, and has now been able to expand its range into water previously thought too cold. Sarah enjoys this work because it has real life application. The crab she studies has invaded all continents with temperate shores and has caused significant ecosystem disruption. One thing she dislikes is the fact that methods are always changing; “You can be doing all this work a certain way one day and come in the next day to find out that that’s not how its done anymore.” It also means being resilient and adapting to change and unexpected events, like samples dying in the lab or a storm destroying sample collection areas- not unlike the crabs have had to do.

But Sarah is not just a scientist. In the spring of her junior year she went abroad to Russia; an experience that she enjoyed and appreciates. As president of Best Buddies, an organization that “pairs people with intellectual disabilities in one-to-one friendship with volunteer[s]”1, here at Smith she was able to get an internship with the Moscow branch. Sarah was keen to talk about the issues related with awareness and accessibility of disabled people in Russia.

However, Sarah did not go a whole semester without some science. The university she studied at did not offer any science classes, but did allow a local high school to use one of the buildings. Sarah took this opportunity, not only to keep her own skills sharp, but to observe the differences between the American and Russian way of teaching science to young adults. There, she noted, high school students are not exposed to lab until their senior year and only if they have committed themselves to studying science in college.

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Sarah came back her senior year ready to finish her honors thesis and with the intention of applying for a Fulbright- a U.S. Department of State program that provides grants for the purpose of conducting research or a project. She did apply,  and was awarded a fellowship to travel to Bali, Indonesia where she will investigate tropical fisheries and work as a conservationist. It was surprising to hear that her main focus would not be research, but Sarah said that it’s time now to work to save the oceans she has studied. With issues like climate change and development propelling marine science-related issues to the fore it seems the perfect time to promote conservation. Sarah believes that ocean ecosystems play an important role and that they need to be protected to ensure that they will survive and continue to provide the goods and services so necessary for so many organisms- human and otherwise.

Even though Sarah is optimistic as she prepares to move on to her next adventure, she expressed mixed emotions about leaving Smith. She will miss the research and environment of Smith and is sad to leave so many unanswered questions. But she is also glad that new students will come to ask and answer at least some of those questions. Her final words of wisdom for the next ‘generation’ of  students who work in the lab? “Crabs are escape artists. Make sure the lids are tight. And ask a million questions.”

-Stefanie Cervantes, ’13

Photo Credit: Shauna Purpura

1. http://sophia.smith.edu/bestbuddies/mission.html

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