Environmental science student-researcher wins Regents’ award for notable accomplishments

As Nicole Choma wrapped up her third year at the University of Nevada, Reno this May, she was not only able to celebrate being one semester closer to her bachelor’s, but also her receiving the Sam Lieberman Regents’ Award for Student Scholarship—an award that honors students for their academic achievements, leadership ability, and service contributions across Nevada.

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

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

So, in the summer of 2020, she joined the lab of Mae Gustin, a professor in environmental geochemistry. Choma has always wanted to go to graduate school, but her participation in research projects through Gustin’s lab has 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 feel more comfortable in a laboratory setting.

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

“It was a huge honor,” she said. “I was extremely touched that [Dr. Gustin] thought that I was worthy of all of the things they were looking for in the award [recipient] and I never expected to actually win it. So when I did, 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 grant offered by Undergraduate Research, part of Research & Innovation, and spoke of the positive experiences they had with it. This encouragement her to apply for the funding and create, design, and present her own research with Dunham-Cheatham as her primary mentor. “The NURA really helped me push myself in a way that I didn’t expect,” she said.

Her research project is tasked with investigating the absorption 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 are not absorbing, especially when it involves a toxic element like mercury.

“What we were looking at is doing mercury either physically or chemically attach 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’re interacting with. Outside of the impacts of microplastics, we should know if there’s anything being carried on [them]because that can change how we think about what’s going into our bodies, what’s going into our food, what’s going into our plants.”

In addition to pursuing a project she’s passionate about, her research experience has allowed her to gain insights into where she’d like to go to graduate school. Her mentors regularly provide her with opportunities of places to present her research, as well as contact information from those at other institutions to help inform her graduate school decision.

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

“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 refocus on other things. Any sort of program that your heart loves is really helpful for getting through being a student.”

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

“You don’t have to be planning to be a scientist to participate in undergraduate research,” she said. “The process that you go through in undergraduate research–designing your project, working with a mentor, doing your project, writing it up, making a poster or making a presentation–even if you’re not going into research, [those activities] really benefit you as a student and give you a ton of extra skills that you don’t necessarily get from projects in your classes.”

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