LSU senior interns with California Academy of Science

When Carlissa Wells entered LSU as a freshman, she didn't have a definite answer to that dreaded  age-old question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Wells did know, however, that she had a love for science, and she was determined to see where that passion would take her.

Carlissa Wells
Biological sciences senior Carlissa Wells did research during an internship at the California Academy of Sciences Summer Systematics Institute, which included assisting in the necropsy of a beached humpback whale.

Wells, now a senior majoring in biological sciences and project coordinator for the LSU Community University Partnership's Fresh Cuts Clean Health initiative, treated the question like any scientist would, seeking her answer through exploration, trial, error and, most importantly, persistence.

"I spent my first year focusing on my school work, participating in a variety of organizations and attending seminars that addressed different opportunities in science," said Wells. "I even took a class in which speakers gave presentations on their occupation in the science field. Among all those presentations, the area that stood out to me the most was scientific research."

The guest lecture spurred Wells to seek professors on campus who could help her gain undergraduate research experience in their labs. She began working in one of the cancer labs at LSU's School of Veterinary Medicine, where her responsibilities included performing polymerase chain reactions, measuring mice tumors, inputting data, tracking inventory and conducting general lab maintenance.

It was a valuable experience for Wells. "I was left with a desire to further pursue the exciting world of scientific research," she said. "I didn't have a specific field of research that I was necessarily interested in, but I knew I wanted to work with animals."

As her junior year wound down, Wells began searching for opportunities to broaden her research experience. "I wanted to go somewhere warm and out-of-state, so I just did a Google search for REU [research experiences for undergraduates] opportunities that met my criteria, and the California Academy of Sciences Summer Systematics Institute was the first on the list," said Wells. "I looked through the application and said, ‘This sounds really cool and is just what I'm looking for!'"

SSI, an eight-week paid summer internship at the Academy's world-renowned research facility and museum in San Francisco, selects up to 10 students nationwide each year to conduct research with a chosen adviser on a project related to their respective disciplines. Students also receive instruction while taking part in a museum-based curriculum that includes tours, lectures and lab exercises on phylogenetic systematics, molecular techniques, biodiversity, evolutionary biology, global change and other contemporary issues in the natural sciences, according to the program's website.

Wells said the application was thorough and time-consuming, but her boss, Brandon Smith, LSU Community Affairs Liaison, and Joan Gallagher, Career Services Associate Director of Student Services, guided her through the process. The time and effort proved well worth it: Several months later, the Academy notified Wells that she had been accepted.

Wells' work for the Academy's Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy, under the direction of chairman and associate curator Jack Dumbacher, focused on the biogeography of New Guinea birds. Because her research was based on molecular DNA, Wells also had the opportunity to work for the research division's Center for Comparative Genomics.

Carlissa Wells
The internship at the California Academy of Sciences Summer Systematics Institute included a museum-based curriculum, lab exercises, field trips and outdoor activities such as tidepooling, hiking, and birdwatching.

"The Center's state-of-the-art research lab allowed me to extract, amplify, purify and sequence actual DNA from bird specimens," said Wells. "Most of my days were spent in the lab trying to get clean DNA sequences from certain gene loci and editing the DNA so I could build my phylogeny." Wells learned how to use computer software programs to run data analysis, edit DNA sequences and construct phylogenies. She then had to write an abstract and present her research findings in front of advisers and staff at the Academy, family and friends.

But Wells' work also took her outside the laboratory. The internship offered numerous field trips and outdoor activities, such as tidepooling at Half Moon Bay, hiking through Pepperwood Preserve and birdwatching. Wells even had the chance to assist in the necropsy of a beached humpback whale.

"Being able to see and touch an actual whale was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will never forget," said Wells. "Even though it wasn't the best of circumstances, I was still honored to be a part of that experience."

On weekends, Wells and the other interns explored the city of San Francisco, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Fisherman's Wharf to Muir Woods Redwood Park.

"There was always something to do, something going on, something new to try and explore," she said. But what Wells enjoyed most about her time at the Academy was "the amazing and fascinating people" she met.

"Everyone at the Academy is so passionate and excited about what they're doing, their future plans and the new happenings at the Academy," said Wells. "The facility in itself is a remarkable place that made me feel excited and privileged to work there every day, but my fellow interns also made the experience special. They were just as excited and passionate about their work as everyone else at the Academy."

Wells returned to Baton Rouge with a wealth of personal experience and knowledge, as well as some tips for fellow students. "I would advise other undergraduates to apply to internships and go for it!" she said. "Go experience a new part of the country, a different city with a different culture, go meet people who didn't grow up the same way you did and who have different points of view."

After graduating from LSU, Wells plans to earn her master's degree in physician assistant studies so she can gain experience in the medical field, but she said her summer in California rekindled an insatiable desire for further research opportunities.

"I would love to do more research in a facility like the Academy," said Wells. "This internship opened my eyes to a whole new world of science that I never knew existed and allowed me to meet people I will never forget."