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Taking the Reins in Research

At UROP, student-faculty partnerships get results

Toby Hatten (CAS’06) studied the sand dunes on Lovells Island. Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Water Resources Authority

Close enough to the city to provide a view of the skyline, but far enough away for ships to be wrecked on its shores, Lovells Island is the only one of the 34 islands in Boston Harbor with sand dunes. The source of the sand was a mystery until a Boston University student and professor teamed up through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) to solve it.

Toby Hatten (CAS’06), an earth sciences major, spent much of his senior year trying to solve the puzzle of the sand on and near the harbor island. Under the guidance of Duncan FitzGerald, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of earth sciences, Hatten spent months collecting over 40 sediment samples from the dunes and the surrounding areas and deploying sophisticated instruments in Boston Harbor during stormy weather to discover what hydrodynamic and morphological factors were at work.

Hatten and FitzGerald were brought together by UROP, which was founded in 1997 to match students with faculty mentors who can help them develop their own research programs. “Being a UROP mentor enabled me to combine my two passions — research and teaching,” says FitzGerald. “In fact, it doesn’t get more fun than working with students in the field and helping them conduct a field investigation.”

FitzGerald’s enthusiastic participation in their partnership resulted in Hatten’s nominating him for the second annual UROP Mentor of the Year Award, which he won in October 2006. “He is deserving of this award because he goes the extra mile and pushes his students to do their best work and never allows his students to settle for anything but that,” says Hatten. “When I thought I had finished my project, he pushed me to do more work, and this mentality has made him and his past students some of the best coastal geologists in the world.”

UROP provides students with opportunities for involvement that go beyond the classroom in scope and intensity. “For students, UROP is a unique experience which often impacts future career choices, while faculty members find significant gratification in being able to communicate their excitement about their own research and watch their students’ academic growth,” says Mary Erskine, UROP director and a CAS professor of biology.

After analyzing his data, Hatten found that Ram’s Head drumlin, located at the northwest end of the island, contained more than enough sand to have provided a sediment source to form the beach and the dunes on the southwest shore and that storms probably transported the sand from Ram’s Head. “This was an exciting find because the beach and dunes system exist on the opposite side of the island from the eroded drumlin and thus the sediment transport pathway must be very complex,” says FitzGerald.

“Not only did he solve a major scientific mystery in Boston Harbor — where did all the sand come from — but he also presented his research at the 2006 Geological Society of America conference in Pennsylvania,” says FitzGerald, who accompanied Hatten to the conference. Fewer than 2 percent of the conference presenters were undergraduates. Hatten and FitzGerald also submitted their work for publication to a number of prominent marine geology journals.

While Hatten’s research has impacted the worlds of coastal geology and earth sciences, he credits his mentor with guiding his academic and career paths as well. He is currently working on a Ph.D. at Stony Brook University, where he is on a full scholarship, and plans to become a college professor like FitzGerald.

The deadline for students to apply for UROP funding for spring semester research is December 11 at noon. Applications and faculty recommendations should be turned in to the UROP office at 143 Bay State Rd.

Meghan Noé can be reached at mdorney@bu.edu.