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Accessible Sharks: A Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates

Image is a grayscale scientific illustration of a smooth dogfish (Mustelus canis). on a white background. The image was originally published in Garman (1913) The shark is facing to the left, and we see a side view of it. The shark does not appear to be swimming, but rather, is stationary and flat.

Image is a grayscale scientific illustration of a smooth dogfish (Mustelus canis). on a white background. The image was originally published in Garman (1913) The shark is facing to the left, and we see a side view of it. The shark does not appear to be swimming, but rather, is stationary and flat.

Welcome to the Accessible Sharks Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) informational webpage. Accessible Sharks is an NSF-Funded summer internship program that supports disabled undergraduate students to participate in interdisciplinary summer research on sharks. Students will have the opportunity to work on aspects of shark scale development, their fossil record, or shark skin-inspired engineering and design, at one of three institutions around the US (University of Florida, Yale University, or Harvard University). The program will run in summer of 2023 and summer of 2024, and support a total of 6 students, 3 per summer. It will consist of an 8-week research project, as well as professional development opportunities and specific disability in STEM activities and discussions. Successful applicants will join a lab group for the summer, and be provided with a $5500 stipend, housing, travel support, as well as support and accommodations related to their individual disability. They will also participate in undergraduate summer research activities at their location, as well as interdisciplinary cross-institution meetings and discussions. Remote participation and research is possible, and will be considered on a case-by-case basis, although students will be supported and encouraged to participate in person where possible.

This REU program is open to all undergraduate students with disabilities (e.g. mobility, sensory, learning, psychological, medical, or other disability – please see FAQ section below for more information), who are majors in biology, geology, environmental science, engineering, or other related fields. Prior research experience is not required or expected. Students from historically excluded and non-traditional backgrounds are especially encouraged to apply, and preference will be given to highly motivated students who have not had access to comparable research opportunities through their home institutions. If you have questions, please reach out to accessiblesharksreu@gmail.com.

This program is supported and run by folks with a variety of disabilities, as well as non-disabled folks. We view this program as a “by disabled scientists for disabled scientists” initiative, and look forward to building community and supporting awesome research.

Application Process

Please apply to the Accessible Sharks REU Program through this linked google form. If you are having trouble accessing the google form, please email us at accessiblesharksreu@gmail.com.

The application consists of:
1. A series of five short answer questions (300 word limit for each question) that discuss your interest in participating in this REU program, your specific research interests, and how the program would benefit your personal and professional goals.
2. Transcripts for undergraduate coursework – please don’t pay for these: unofficial transcripts are sufficient at this stage.
3. The names and contact information of 3 people (e.g. faculty mentors, advisors, or other people who have interacted with you in a professional or educational setting) who are willing to write you a letter of recommendation.
Please note that letters of recommendation will only be solicited for short-listed students in early February and will be submitted separately from the main application.

Applications are due on or before February 1, 2023. Short-listed students will be contacted in February for a follow-up interview. In the summer of 2023, the program will run for 8 weeks, from approximately June 5, 2023 to July 28, 2023. Please note that these dates may be able to shift to accommodate student university schedules (e.g. quarter system vs. semester system or other scheduling restrictions), so please apply and we will work with you!

Selected students will be matched to a specific site location and research area, and will be contacted to set up travel, stipend, accommodations, and to register with the center for disability services at the appropriate university as relevant.

Research Opportunities

This REU is supported on the multi-institution NSF grant IntBIO COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH: Deep Time, Development, and Design: Evolution of shark skin teeth from genotype to phenotype to prototype. Students will participate in one of three research areas, and will be included in large cross-institution interdisciplinary group meetings to learn more about how their research integrates across the project a a whole. Click on the links below to learn more about each lab and research. Please feel free to reach out to the PIs with questions – we are happy to hear about your research interests, and students will be matched to labs based on their own interests. Please note that contacting the PIs ahead of applying is not required and will not impact admission decisions.

This image shows a series of pictures of shark scales in two rows. In between the rows is a top-down view of an embryonic shark. The top row has the label "Paleoecology" above a picture of isolated fossil shark scales, the label "Genes and Development" above an image of shark scales dyed pink on a clear background, and the label "Shape Diversity" above a grayscale image of shark skin with multiple shapes of scales overlapping. The bottom row includes the label "Pattern Modeling" below a black-and-white image of different sized white dots in rows, and the label "Application and Design" under an image of a scaled down, 3D printed airplane wing with shark scales along the edge. The image is meant to be an overview visual of the interdisciplinary nature of the research opportunities.

This image shows a series of pictures of shark scales in two rows. In between the rows is a top-down view of an embryonic shark. The top row has the label “Paleoecology” above a picture of isolated fossil shark scales, the label “Genes and Development” above an image of shark scales dyed pink on a clear background, and the label “Shape Diversity” above a grayscale image of shark skin with multiple shapes of scales overlapping. The bottom row includes the label “Pattern Modeling” below a black-and-white image of different sized white dots in rows, and the label “Application and Design” under an image of a scaled down, 3D printed airplane wing with shark scales along the edge. The image is meant to be an overview visual of the interdisciplinary nature of the research opportunities.

Deep Time: Shark Fossils and Evolution at Yale University with Dr. Elizabeth Sibert (Click to email Dr. Sibert)
Sharks are among the oldest vertebrates on the planet, with a fossil record stretching back over 400 million years. The Deep Time aspect of this project uses fossil denticles – the tiny scales covering a shark’s body to elucidate shark ecological and evolutionary processes throughout their evolutionary history. Potential projects using fossil denticles will explore how sharks have responded to past mass extinctions, shed light on how sharks have responded to ancient global warming events, and even reveal how sharks and humans have interacted over the past 10,000 years.

Development: EvoDevo and “-omics” at the University of Florida with Professor Gareth Fraser (Click to email Dr. Fraser)
Shark skin denticles are tooth-like epidermal appendages that cover the entire body of the animal – from nose to tail tip. These ‘skin-teeth’ develop in a similar way to jaw teeth and even the same genes are employed for their formation and patterning. The Evolutionary Developmental (EvoDevo) aspect of this NSF-funded project focuses on the formation of denticle pattern and shape, and the gene networks that control the emergence of these unique skin surfaces. Sequencing the developmental transcriptome (RNAseq) at the level of the single cell during denticle and oral tooth development will offer a deeper understanding of the developmental and evolutionary relationships between these two populations of “teeth”. Additionally, these data will add important information to the story of tooth origins, more generally. How sharks make and replace these complex skin structures is essential to the design and deep-time components of this project. We ask how and why sharks develop a variety of denticle cusp shapes.  

Design: Fluid Dynamics and Engineering at Harvard University with Professor George Lauder (Click to email Dr. Lauder)
Sharks are covered in thousands of small scales or denticles (homologous to teeth) that alter flow over the body during swimming. The Design aspect of this project studies the three dimensional morphology of denticles in diverse shark species, how denticle morphology differs around the body, and how shark skin denticles function to alter water flow. 3D printing of denticles at different size scales enables study of denticle function in models and allows the design of denticles to be altered to test hypotheses of denticle hydrodynamic function.

FAQ

1. Do I have to have a disability to participate in this REU program?
Yes. This program is specifically for students who have a disability**, and will include considerable disability-related content, including discourse about career navigation with a disability. If you do not have a disability, this REU is not an appropriate fit for you. A person with a disability is defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability.”
You are considered to have a disability if you have a physical or mental impairment or medical condition that substantially limits a major life activity, or if you have a history or record of such an impairment or medical condition. Disabilities include, but are not limited to:
• Autism
• Autoimmune disorder, for example, lupus, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, or HIV/AIDS
• Blind or low vision
• Cancer
• Cardiovascular or heart disease
• Celiac disease
• Cerebral palsy
• Deaf or hard of hearing
• Depression or anxiety
• Diabetes
• Epilepsy
• Gastrointestinal disorders, for example, Crohn’s Disease, or irritable bowel syndrome
• Intellectual disability
• Missing limbs or partially missing limbs
• Nervous system condition for example, migraine headaches, Parkinson’s disease, or Multiple sclerosis (MS)
• Psychiatric condition, for example, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, or major depression

**There are no restrictions on disability type and we encourage any interested undergraduate student who identifies as disabled or as having a disability to apply.

2. Are there other eligibility criteria?
Unfortunately we are bound by the laws concerning NSF funding for REU programs. From NSF: “Eligible Student Participants: Undergraduate student participants supported with NSF funds in either REU Supplements or REU Sites must be U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, or permanent residents of the United States. An undergraduate student is a student who is enrolled in a degree program (part-time or full-time) leading to a baccalaureate or associate degree. Students who are transferring from one college or university to another and are enrolled at neither institution during the intervening summer may participate. High school graduates who have been accepted at an undergraduate institution but who have not yet started their undergraduate study are also eligible to participate. Students who have received their bachelor’s degrees and are no longer enrolled as undergraduates are generally not eligible to participate.”

3. Why do you need my transcripts? Will GPA be considered?
We recognize that GPA is an inherently inequitable indicator of student potential, and is not a main consideration in the application process. However, your transcripts do provide valuable information about which courses you have taken, and this will be used to help determine appropriate lab fit and place your experiences within context.

4. How are research projects chosen?
Students can indicate a preference for specific research topics in their application. Final site/project matches will be based on student interest and project availability. Disability will not be taken into account in choosing project locations, and students will be accommodated in their chosen projects.

5. Do I have to disclose my specific disability to others in the program or my lab?
Disclosure is not required and students may choose whether and how they disclose their disability or any specifics related to their disability. However, in order for us to support your research, we will need to work with you to ensure that appropriate accommodations are available and accessible. Any information disclosed to the program will be kept confidential. You will also be asked to register with the relevant office of disability services at the relevant location to formalize accommodations.

6. Will there be disabled mentors? Who is running this program anyway?
This program is supported and run by folks with a variety of disabilities, as well as non-disabled folks. We view this program as a “by disabled scientists for disabled scientists” initiative. Every research team has at least one mentor who identifies as having a disability, and we are excited to build community and introduce you to other disabled researchers around the country.

If you have additional questions, please reach out to accessiblesharksreu@gmail.com

APPLY TO THE 2023 ACCESSIBLE SHARKS REU PROGRAM

Image of the National Science Foundation Logo, a small earth surrounded by a series of cartoon gold people holding hands around the earth, with the letters "NSF" in the center of the earth.

Image of the National Science Foundation Logo, a small earth surrounded by a series of cartoon gold people holding hands around the earth, with the letters “NSF” in the center of the earth.

The header shark image is from: Garman, S. (1913) The Plagiostomia (Sharks, Skates and Rays). Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College, 36, 1–528