Summer Research Contributes to DeSantiago's Transformation

When Ric DeSantiago speaks about an environmental transformation he’s made and the career path he’s interested in taking, that visualization initially returns him to a childhood memory.

He recalls visiting Hart Park, a place that provided him with an appreciation for nature, its beauty and the surrounding sights, in Bakersfield, Calif. “I’d go with my sister and it’s one of the last little bits of wilderness out there,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

Then came a return visit, years later, to Hart Park. There, the scenic view, he noticed, had changed. “Everything that used to be around there, the beautiful Kern River flowing and everything else, was just oil fields,” he recalled. “(Hart Park) was still beautiful, but it’s pretty much destroyed.”

He was employed at the latter time by a construction company that had DeSantiago and others clearing land to prepare for oil companies to bring in machinery for onsite drilling. Seeing Hart Park again and noticing a major change to the area left an indelible mark to him.

“It was at that moment that I decided I wasn’t going to do that (kind of work) anymore. It wasn’t for me,” he said.

Education Opportunities

DeSantiago quit his lucrative job and chose to pursue his education. He left Bakersfield and attended San Diego Mesa College for two years. He will enter San Diego State University this fall to study environmental science. But before he starts at SDSU, DeSantiago received a prime summer opportunity to do environmental research at the University of San Diego.

He was selected for a paid fellowship through USD’s National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates. The project brings together students from diverse backgrounds — and not only USD students — to do hands-on research tied to the effects of climate change. Students engage in collaborative, interdisciplinary research alongside USD faculty in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, engineering, environmental and ocean sciences, mathematics, computer science and physics.

“The goal is to engage these students in authentic research, preparing them for success in science and academics while also contributing to research,” said USD Environmental and Ocean Sciences Professor Drew Talley, PhD, who had DeSantiago work in his lab.

Talley’s research centers on wetland fishes, primarily fundulus. Through the NSF program, DeSantiago and his research partner, Amber Clay, “made novel discoveries that have importance to wetland conservation and, while doing so, have made connections with scientists, students and staff that will provide them with guidance and support throughout their careers,” Talley said.

DeSantiago, who works with the San Diego County Office of Education’s Splash Science Mobile Lab, immensely enjoyed his experience. His passion for doing research grew, he loved being in the lab and he had fun, even laughing now while recalling his first day of field work.

“Our work is governed by the tides, so we go sampling during low tides,” DeSantiago explained. “We go out there to collect specimens and the first thing I do is walk into the mud to see what the water’s like and I went knee deep on one leg. I went to pull myself out and ended up getting both legs stuck in the mud. I kind of scooted out and lost my shoes on the first day of research.”

Thankfully, DeSantiago’s overall experience more than made up for losing a pair of shoes.

Empowered to Do

“When you read about something in any textbook, you’re only reading the results of an experiment or what happened and you go from there,” DeSantiago said. “But being here and seeing the thought process, it changed my view on science. In general, it’s how a question is posed and how we think about all of the possible outcomes, to come away with a question, an answer and to see if it’s true. It was really interesting to do all the work and not just read about it. It’s about getting your hands in there and doing it.”

Talley has been a powerful mentor to DeSantiago’s growth as a researcher. “Drew’s the man you need to know,” he said. “He’s not just great as a mentor and at research, but he cares about you. He’s introduced me to a lot of connections. He’s a great mentor, always pushing you, and he’s very charismatic.”

Solid mentorship while gaining lab and field experience has been a successful combination. It’s a big step forward in DeSantiago’s career transformation.

“Ric developed a keen interest in mitigating the damage being done to the environment, and showed the courage to leave (his construction) position and embark on his pathway to college,” Talley said. “While attending community college and still today, Ric volunteers, teaching school kids about marine science and the environment. I feel Ric will not only be a great role model, scientist and educator, but I look forward to one day having him as a trusted colleague.”

DeSantiago is inspired to do more.

“This research experience is something I can add to my resume and I know I want to have other opportunities. I’ll be talking to everybody in hopes of opening up any other doors I can because research is now something I’m not just interested in, but what I plan to do. I didn’t know all about what researchers did before this, but now that I’ve done some, I think it’s only going to get better.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Photo above courtesy of Drew Talley

Contact Information

Office of Undergraduate Research
UMO Room 100N
5998 Alcalá Park
San Diego, CA 92110

Phone: (619) 260-7840
Fax: (619) 849-8390