A Rising Star Through BIOS’s Ocean Academy

An Mei Daniels, 18, interned for two summers in BIOS’s Microbial Ecology Laboratory through the Institute’s Ocean Academy programs. Now a second-year student at the University of Exeter, Daniels said the internships “provided experience in scientific writing and presentations,” as well as practical laboratory work, all skills that she has utilized in her master’s degree program. Here, Daniels works in the Microbial Ecology Laboratory in 2020 on a project investigating the effects of microplastics on the microbial communities associated with Sargassum seaweed. This first involved careful separation of small plastic particles from the densely branched algae.

Not many people can say their selection of a university degree program was largely influenced by electrical wire and pieces of PVC pipe. But for An Mei Daniels, 18, a second-year student in the University of Exeter’s (U.K.) Integrated Masters in Natural Sciences program, it’s true. Her passion for science was discovered by way of a robotics club that she joined during her first year at Warwick Academy, a Bermuda-based secondary school.

“I originally got into robotics because it was a new club and it sounded exciting,” Daniels said. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to study at IGCSEs [standardized exams for students aged 14 to 16 years], much less university, and it seemed like a fun opportunity to explore the sciences as a career I might enjoy doing.”

Led by Eric Totten, Warwick Academy’s computer science and information technology teacher, the club’s activities centered around building underwater robots, or ROVs, to compete in BIOS’s annual Mid-Atlantic Robotics IN Education (MARINE) ROV Challenge. Through MARINE, which she competed in for three years (2017-2019) as her team’s captain, Daniels was introduced to other education programs at BIOS offered as part of the Institute’s Ocean Academy.

Daniels learned of BIOS through her school’s robotics club, which participated in the Institute’s annual Mid-Atlantic Robotics IN Education (MARINE) ROV Challenge. In 2017, her first year participating in both the club and the ROV Challenge, Daniels (shown here, second from left) helped lead the team to a second-place overall finish in the advanced ROV design and piloting category. The team’s underwater robot was created to complete a series of tasks set as part of the competition and gained the attention and support of robotics engineers, including Geoffrey Gardner (shown here, cheering in the background).

In 2020, she was part of the single largest cohort in BIOS’s history for local summer internship placements and spent four weeks working in the Microbial Ecology Laboratory. Under the mentorship of microbial oceanographer Rachel Parsons, Daniels looked at the effects of microplastics on the microbial communities of Sargassum seaweed to better understand the impacts of ocean pollution. The following year, in 2021, Daniels was accepted into the BIOS Bermuda Program and re-joined Parsons and “Team Microbe” for a seven-week internship. Continuing her work with marine plastics, she investigated how quickly the debris pieces are colonized by marine bacteria and which bacteria utilize plastics as a food source.

“An Mei joined the Microbial Ecology Laboratory when she was only 16 years old and was very capable, a quick learner, and soon designed a research project based on her interest in microplastics,” Parsons said. “When she returned in 2021, she assisted a doctoral student from Oregon State University with their research, eventually running most of the project, often without the need of supervision. She is a superstar in the lab and will be an excellent researcher in whatever field she chooses.”

For Kaitlin Noyes, BIOS director of education and community engagement, Daniels is a powerful example of how the MARINE program and ROV Challenge are gateways to career paths in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. “Many of our Ocean Academy students rise through the ranks on the marine science side, but An Mei started with us on the engineering side as a robotics team leader for Warwick Academy and then really flourished on Team Microbe with Rachel’s mentorship,” Noyes said.

We recently caught up with Daniels and had the opportunity to learn more about her internship take-aways, university experiences, and how she sees herself applying her interest in, and aptitude for, science.

What made you decide to apply for an internship at BIOS?
From the ROV club and my classes I decided to follow the science route at university; however, I didn’t know which particular area of science I wanted to explore. I knew I wanted to get practical experience in a research science setting to confirm this was a pathway I could see myself pursuing, and to try to start figuring out which area of science I wanted to focus on. I really enjoyed working with Rachel and Team Microbe during the two summers that I interned at BIOS. Rachel is an experienced and patient mentor and there was a friendly atmosphere in the lab. I learned a great deal during my time there.

What can you tell us about your degree program at Exeter? Do you feel that your internships at BIOS helped prepare you for university?
The Integrated Masters in Natural Sciences is a degree that allows me to study across the sciences, as I still don’t know which area I will specialize in. The program is designed to offer as much practical experience and knowledge as possible, so having spent time in BIOS’s microbiology department beforehand doing hands-on laboratory work has greatly helped. The internships also provided experience in scientific writing and presentations, which has aided me in some of my university assessments.

Do you have any thoughts on where you want this degree to take you?
I think one of the main unifying factors between students in this program is that we are all indecisive scientists. I still don’t really know where I’m going after I graduate but, currently, my focus is more on the biological side of the sciences, with a bit of coding. I will probably stay in academia in hopes of earning a PhD but, from there, I have no clue. There are so many opportunities within the sciences and I look forward to discovering where my path takes me. I hope to contribute to the scientific community here in Bermuda.

In summer 2021, Daniels spent seven weeks as a Bermuda Program intern with “Team Microbe,” the name that microbial oceanographer Rachel Parsons has given to the interns, students, and technicians that work alongside her in the Microbial Ecology Laboratory. “Rachel is an experienced and patient mentor and there was a friendly atmosphere in the lab,” Daniels said. [Front L-R: Kristy Sanchez Vega (research intern), An Mei Daniels, Maya Leighton (Bermuda Program); Back L-R: Sebastian Singleton (Oregon State University, BIOS Grants-in-Aid), Iziah Tucker (Bermuda Program), Marc Fontanez Ortiz (Arizona State University, BIOS Grants-in-Aid), Kevin Yongblah (BIOS research technician), Zoe Skinner (BIOS-SCOPE intern), Rachel Parsons]