As Nicole Choma completed her third year at the University of Nevada, Reno this May, she celebrated not only being one semester closer to her bachelor’s degree, but also receiving the Sam Lieberman Regents’ Award for Student Scholarship – an award that honors students for their academic achievement, leadership, and service contributions throughout Nevada.
Choma began her college career with a major in Environmental Sciences at the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources and has since majored in Biology at the College of Science. An Honors College Distinguished Student, she won the award for her outstanding academic achievements, including her impressive and ongoing undergraduate research projects and her participation in the Wolf Pack Marching Band.
Choma’s first open water dive introduced her to the tranquility of aquatic ecosystems, but also the unfortunate consequences of hurricane damage and human impact. This experience motivated her to pursue a career in environmental science to do her part to protect the oceans.
So, in the summer of 2020, she joined the lab of Mae Gustin, a professor of environmental geochemistry. Choma has always wanted to go to graduate school, but her participation in research projects through Gustin’s lab confirmed that. The support she received from Gustin and other mentors in the lab gave her many opportunities to develop her valuable professional skills and to become 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 Student Scholarship.
“It was a great honor,” she said. “That touched me very much [Dr. Gustin] thought I was worthy of all the things they were looking for in the award [recipient] and I never expected to actually win it. When I did that, it was kind of crazy.”
Soon Sarrah Dunham-Cheatham, research assistant professor, began talking to Choma about pursuing her own research project. Other students in the lab had applied for the Nevada Undergraduate Research Award (NURA), a competitive scholarship offered by Undergraduate Research, part of Research & Innovation, and spoke of the positive experience they had. This encouraged her to apply for funding and to create, design, and present her own research with Dunham-Cheatham as her primary mentor. “The NURA really helped me push myself in ways I didn’t expect,” she said.
Your research project has the task of investigating the uptake and desorption of mercury from microplastics and the aquatic ecosystem. Due to the proliferation of microplastics in the environment, it is important to understand what these microplastics absorb and what does not, especially when it comes to a toxic element like mercury.
“What we looked at is whether mercury either physically or chemically binds to plastics and leachates into different water chemistries,” she said. “We know that microplastics are literally everywhere on earth, so it’s important for us to know exactly what they interact with. Aside from the impact of microplastics, we should know if anything is being done about it [them]because that 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 she is passionate about, her research experience has allowed her to gain insight into where she wants to go to graduate school. Her mentors regularly provide her with opportunities to present her research, as well as contact information of people at other institutions to assist her with her graduate school decision.
Another important aspect of her college journey so far has been her involvement in the marching band. She plays piccolo and said marching band gives her the freedom and space to de-stress.
“It feeds your soul,” she said. “Marching band is my fun thing that keeps me really happy and engaged so I can completely relax and then get my focus back on other things. Any kind of program your heart loves is really helpful to get through college.”
Choma encouraged people from different disciplines to try research.
“You don’t have to plan to be a scientist to participate in undergraduate research,” she said. “The process you go through in undergraduate research—designing your project, working with a mentor, taking your project, writing it down, making a poster, or giving a presentation—even if you’re not going into research , [those activities] It really benefits you as a student and gives you a ton of extra skills that you don’t necessarily get from projects in your classes.