Environmental Science Student Researcher Wins Regents Prize for Outstanding Achievement

As Nicole Choma completed her third year at the University of Nevada, Reno in May, she not only got to celebrate being one semester closer to graduating with her bachelor’s degree, but also receiving the award. Sam Lieberman Regents for Scholarship, an award that honors students for their academic achievement, leadership ability, and contributions to service across Nevada.

Choma began his college career with a major in environmental science at the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, and has since declared an additional biology major at the College of Science. An excellent student at Honors College, she won the award for her outstanding achievements, including her impressive ongoing undergraduate research projects and her participation in the Wolf Pack Marching Band.

Choma’s first open water dive introduced him to the serenity of aquatic ecosystems, but also the unfortunate results of hurricane damage and human impacts. This experience motivated her to pursue a career in environmental science so she could do her part to protect the oceans.

Thus, in the summer of 2020, she joined the laboratory of Mae Gustin, professor of environmental geochemistry. Choma always wanted to go to graduate school, but his participation in research projects in Gustin’s laboratory confirmed it. The support she received from Gustin and other lab mentors gave her many opportunities to develop her valuable professional skills and feel more comfortable in a lab environment.

Choma was surprised when Gustin reached out and wanted to nominate her for the Sam Lieberman Regents Award for Scholarship.

“It was a huge honor,” she said. “I was extremely touched that [Dr. Gustin] thought I was worthy of all the things they were looking for in the price [recipient] and I didn’t expect to win it. So when I did, it was kind of crazy.

Soon, Sarrah Dunham-Cheatham, an assistant research professor, began talking to Choma about pursuing his own research project. Other students in the lab had applied for the Nevada Undergraduate Research Award (NURA), a competitive grant offered by Undergraduate Research, which is part of Research & Innovation, and spoke of the positive experiences they had had. This encouraged her to apply for the funding and to create, design and present her own research with Dunham-Cheatham as her primary mentor. “NURA has really helped me push myself in a way that I never expected,” she said.

His research project is responsible for studying the uptake and desorption of mercury from microplastics and the aquatic ecosystem. Due to the prevalence of microplastics in the environment, she said it’s critical to understand what these microplastics are and aren’t absorbing, especially when it comes to a toxic element like mercury.

“What we were looking at is whether mercury physically or chemically attaches to plastics and does it come off in different water chemistries,” she said. “We know that microplastics are literally everywhere on the planet, so it’s important for us to know exactly what they interact with. Apart from the impacts of microplastics, we should know if there is anything going on [them]because it can change the way we think about what goes into our bodies, what goes into our food, what goes into our plants.

In addition to pursuing a project that she is passionate about, her research experience has given her a better understanding of where she would like to go to graduate school. His mentors regularly provide him with opportunities for venues to present his research, as well as contact details for those at other institutions to help inform his graduate decision.

Another important aspect of his college career so far has been his involvement in the marching band. She plays the piccolo and said brass band gives her freedom and space to relax.

“It feeds your soul,” she said. “The marching band is my fun thing that makes me really happy and engaged so I can fully relax and then refocus on other things. Any kind of program that your heart loves is really helpful in being a successful student.”

Choma encouraged those from a variety of disciplines to try research.

“You don’t have to intend to be a scientist to participate in undergraduate research,” she said. “The process you follow in undergraduate research – designing your project, working with a mentor, doing your project, writing it, making a poster or giving a presentation – even if you don’t go into research, [those activities] really benefits you as a student and gives you a ton of extra skills that you don’t necessarily get from projects in your courses.

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