Caitlin Wilkinson Named Regeneron Science Talent Search Semifinalist

Alexis Yang, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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East senior Caitlin Wilkinson has been named a Regeneron Science Talent Search Semifinalist for her research project, “Rates and Traits: The Potential for Utilizing Above-ground Plant Traits to Predict Denitrification in Long Island Salt Marshes.” Wilkinson is among 300 scholars selected for extraordinary work in STEM research.

Regeneron is “the nation’s oldest and most prestigious STEM competition,” which recognizes students for excellence in research. Each Regeneron STS Semifinalist and his or her school receives $2,000 each. From the pool of 300 Semifinalists, 40 Finalists are chosen. Finalists receive $25,000 and a trip to the Regeneron Science Talent Institute in Washington, D.C., where they present their projects and are then adjudicated for the top ten spots.

The Matador interviewed Wilkinson about her accomplishment:


Q: Can you explain your research project—what you did and what you found?

A: I looked at denitrification, which is a microbial process by which nitrates in the soil are converted into nitrogen gas, which is then released back into the atmosphere. Salt marshes historically have been very good nitrogen sinks, in that they take those nitrates and they convert them into nitrogen very efficiently compared to other similar environments on Long Island. That’s a pretty big thing, especially because of nitrogen pollution and eutrophication. Nitrogen pollution leads to eutrophication—which is basically a saturation of nutrients—which leads to things like algae blooms, which inhibit the growth of the native species of plants and animals. So, denitrification is very important, especially now, because of wastewater treatments and runoff, which takes that nitrogen and flows it into marine environments. Measuring denitrification is very difficult, because basically what you’re doing is you’re trying to get those little fluctuations of tiny, tiny bits of N2 escaping into the atmosphere. But N2 is around 70% of the atmosphere, so it’s very difficult to do it that way. So, the conventional method is to analyze enzyme activity. And that is really expensive and not very efficient. It’s costly with time and money. It is known, however, that roots and root biomass of the marsh plants create a good environment for the microbes to perform denitrification. High degrees of root biomass are associated with higher degrees of denitrification. So, what I tried to do was find a way to be able to associate the above-ground traits, which we can measure fairly easily with satellite imaging, to the below-ground traits and specifically the root biomass so that you can lay the foundation to see if measuring denitrification via analyzing above-ground plant traits is feasible. I found that stem height—the height of the grass—was negatively correlated with high percentages of below-ground root biomass. I looked at one specific specimen, Spartina alterniflora (S. alterniflora), which is general cordgrass. As that gets shorter, the percentage of root underground gets higher, so it has a better potential for denitrification. This tells us a couple things: one, the fact that we found the correlation means that measuring denitrification via plant traits is feasible and has a high potential for being able to use in the future for researchers and scientists alike, and for assessing the health of the ecosystems. The second thing is that, if we know that the better environments for denitrification underground are occurring in these areas with the shorter S. alterniflora, that shorter version of S. alterniflora has lower salinity preferences. What that means is, as sea level rise is increasing and tidal influxes come in and the volume of the tides gets larger and larger and marsh flooding becomes more and more of a problem, it’s pushing back the marsh zonation. The area that the shorter form inhabits is actually decreasing as sea level rise continues to push forward. So, that threatens a marsh’s future capability and ability to denitrify its soil, which then could lead to eutrophication and all those negative effects that I listed before.


Q: Can you talk about the process of working in the lab?

A: Working in the lab is different for everybody who does it, because all internships at Stony Brook are a little bit different depending on your principal investigator [advising professor] and the grad students. But for me, it would mostly be Monday through Friday, about 10-4. Every once in a while, we would go out and sample at the marsh sites. That could be a 45-minute, 1-hour drive, depending on where we were going. We went to a lot of places out east, so that took a long time to get there. We’d have to get there very specifically and punctually because we needed to get there at low tide, because we couldn’t do the sampling during high tide because the areas where we were sampling would not be accessible. It is definitely a lot of work, I would say, but I did enjoy it. The very cool thing about what I got to do was I wasn’t sitting in an office room all day typing on a computer or even to a little bit greater of an extent, looking through microscopes and things like that. I wasn’t sitting under fluorescent lighting all the time. I got to go out and be in the field doing work directly, which I think is a very cool experience that you don’t always get with other types of projects. It was awesome to be able to go out and see all these different places on Long Island that I had never been to before, and especially to see the variety of environments. Even between the sites, you could see the minutiae of the differences between them and how they were structured, and looking at things that you didn’t realize were there before. Specifically at West Meadow Beach, there was a huge marsh that I had never been to. It was really interesting and super fun.


Q: What was it like when you found out that you’d been named a Regeneron Semifinalist?

A: I was totally floored. I had put it out of my mind. I worked on it very hard leading up to the deadline, and it was my life for a good two weeks before we put it up, but as soon as I put it through—I had this thing where I like to go into things with lower expectations, because then the only thing that can happen is you get pleasantly surprised. And this was definitely more than a pleasant surprise. It was really cool.


Q: Is there any advice you would like to give younger aspiring scientists?

A: It’s cheesy, but follow your passions. If you have something that you really enjoy doing and like to do, just do it. Don’t spend too much time getting like, “oh, how can I do this,” and “where is this going to go?”, and “what is my plan?” Just start doing it. Just start reading. Just start looking around for your internships or whatever it is that you want to do. Just do it. Because if you spend too much time worrying about how you’re going to do it, you’re never going to get around to actually doing it. There’s truth to the saying that if you are sitting on your pen, at the end of the day, all you’re going to get is a puddle of ink. So you may as well just start moving it.


Q: Do you intend on pursuing the sciences in the future?

A: Yes, definitely. My major will definitely be in a STEM. I think I want to go graduate school as well in a STEM field, and have a professional degree. Doing research is also something that I would do as well in college. The cool thing about it is that you get guidance, but not the kind of guidance that you get in a traditional classroom. You can get a certain amount of advice, but most of it is independent. You’re allowed to bring your own questions to the board and start figuring out how you want to get your own answers, whereas in class, it is very much like, “What is the prompt?” That’s a question that millions of people have asked and millions of people have answered, but with research you get to think of your own ones. You get to think of questions that maybe nobody has asked before, and I think the answers to those kinds of questions are inherently more interesting. You get to combine your analytical skills with the creativity and curiosity that you get with the arts and humanities. You have that inherent curiosity and creative thinking, but you also get to tie it with the logic and analytical stuff as well.