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IRES: Undergraduate Research Opportunities in Microbiology and Biogeosciences of Siberian Deep Subsurface Permafrost

Former IRES students

Click a name to learn more about each student.

2018 Students

Nicholls State University, Department of Physical Sciences, Thibodaux, LA 70301

During the summer of 2018, I was fortunate enough to participate in the IRES program. Immersing myself in a place ~6,000 miles from home and working in a professional Russian research institute among some of the world’s brightest students and mentors was phenomenal. There is simply nothing else like it. Everything about Russia was breathtaking – the kind and helpful residents, the luscious green scenery, the beautiful architecture, the unique language, food, and culture, and, of course, the crazy World Cup fans. There was never a dull moment during this adventure. Working with ancient bacteria during the week and sight-seeing during the weekends in Moscow and St. Petersburg was a dream come true. I have learned so much from this experience, and it has inspired and trained me to excel in my future research endeavors. It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity that will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Grinnell College, Department of Biology, Grinnell, IA 50112

The IRES program was an extremely valuable experience for me as an undergraduate student. The program provided me with my first experience working in a lab full time, allowing me to see what a career in research would be like. Dr. Vishnivetskaya and the Russian mentors were all incredibly kind and helpful, and were always willing to answer questions or explain new laboratory techniques to us.

Working at the Institute of Physiochemical and Biological Problems in Soil Science in Pushchino provides a unique experience for students. As someone who had a previous interest in extremophiles and permafrost microbes, it was wonderful to be in the place where so much exciting research is performed within these topics. The interdisciplinary nature of the lab allows students to interact with geologists and geographers and to learn about their work in the polar regions as well. Biology is a collaborative and international field, and the program provides a wonderful opportunity to work in such a setting.

After participating in the IRES, I am happy to say that I hope to pursue graduate studies in the microbial ecology of psychrophiles. I’m grateful to the organizers of the program and the NSF for this opportunity.

I sincerely hope the program is funded so that more students can have this opportunity!

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, Minneapolis, MN 55455

My entire experience through the IRES program came as a huge shock to me. As I had never traveled outside of the Midwest (never having left my home state of Minnesota or neighboring Wisconsin, for that matter), the preliminary trip to Tennessee, especially including the first flight of my life to Chicago from Minneapolis, had been one of the most nerve-racking experiences of my life. The first glimpse I caught of Russia did not fail to surpass my prior amount of anxiety, however, as I noticed the first Cyrillic words etched across a billboard flanked by a drearily gray sky while landing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport after an arduous thirty hours of preceding travel from UT. It was at this point I began to seriously wonder what I had gotten myself into.

Thankfully, the rest of my experience in Russia was not nearly as frightening, albeit still quite daunting, as that first moment. This was primarily due to the Russian mentors I met soon after. Each of them was incredible, exercising large amounts of patience and understanding for any obstacles we faced, whether they be scientific or cultural, while remaining passionate and affable. The research topics with which the mentors assisted us were also quite interesting and helped to ebb the worry I had about the trip. By the end of the six weeks, I had unfortunately begun to find the process of conducting research at the institute wearisome. Having completed around a full year of research at the University of Minnesota, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with some limitations of the institute (e.g.: using micropipette tips multiple times; being confined to one, shared laminar flow hood; and, a noticeable conservation of ethanol), but I blame these limitations on an overall, substantial lack of funding for the institute, a matter unfortunately out of the control of the mentors.
On the cultural side, Russia holds numerous symbols left behind from its communist predecessor amongst some newer signs of Western-style development. Pushchino is a beautiful rural city with greenery mixed in everywhere between infrastructure that is reminiscent of the Soviet reign not thirty years prior. Most of the buildings around town appear to have been built multiple decades ago, seemingly in haste and with some level of apathy, and they appear to have had little upkeep since. Some buildings in Moscow also share this appearance of disrepair, but many are reminiscent of styles one would expect to see in the United States with a similar level of maintenance. Regardless, Moscow as a city is also quite beautiful with numerous attractions to visit, the Kremlin being my personal favorite. The other undergrads and myself also traveled to Saint Petersburg and were able to explore for a little more than a weekend. While I found myself a bit underwhelmed by the architecture in the city since it was all very similar, I found the atmosphere inviting and the cold climate great. Additionally, the general populous of all locations visited in the country was much friendlier than I had expected, despite most not knowing English.

Overall, my experience in Russia was most certainly memorable, one I can say I enjoyed. Despite my initial fears traveling to the country and a certain amount of persisting anxiety due to the practical difficulties of living in a foreign country speaking a different language, I grew to enjoy my time in Russia; to perform research in a foreign country is very possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I am very glad I was offered the chance to do so.

North Carolina State University, Department of Food Science, Chemistry, Food Microbiology, Raleigh, NC 27695

During the summer of 2018, I was given the incredible opportunity to travel to Russia and do microbiological research at the Institute of Physiochemical and Biological Problems in Soil Science. The Institute is in the beautiful town of Pushchino, about an hour and half bus ride away from Moscow. During my time at the Institute, I worked under the guidance of my mentor, Elena Spirina. My research project focused on DNA isolation from permanently frozen permafrost samples. Most of my time in the lab was spent performing DNA extractions, measuring DNA concentrations, and compiling my data into Excel tables and graphs.

This program not only introduced me to scientific techniques I was previously unfamiliar with, but it also introduced me to the cultural wonders present in Russia. In the six weeks I was there, I was able to explore Pushchino, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. The beauty of the canals and museums in St. Petersburg and the splendor of the Red Square in Moscow will undoubtably stay with me forever. I had the privilege of attending a World Cup match in Moscow, which was a personal dream-come-true moment for me. I have many wonderful memories of meeting and getting to know the people of Russia, as it was a very immersive cultural experience.

Overall, this was an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. My time in Russia was a six-week adventure that I will never forget. I got to learn new things, try new foods, and meet new, amazing people. The genuine kindness and support from all of the mentors at the Institute made me feel right at home from the very beginning. This program introduced me to some incredible people, including some who I am now honored to call my friends. I hope that one day I can return to Russia, because six weeks simply wasn’t enough time to take it all in! The greatest gift this trip has given me is that there is kindness in all of humanity, despite language barriers and cultural differences.

Clemson University, Department of Biological Sciences, Clemson, SC 29634

The IRES 2018 program in Pushchino, Russia was a wonderful experience. I participated in exciting microbial research, experienced Russian culture, and met new people. At the Institute of Physiochemical and Biological Problems in Soil Science, I joined my mentor Stas Malavin on a project characterizing six strains of Acanthamoeba isolated from permafrost. He guided me through molecular biological techniques (DNA extractions, PCR, sequence analysis), microscopy (cell measurements, counting, etc), and temperature experiments (finding the optimum growth temperatures for all strains). Furthermore, he introduced me to bioinformatics and inspired me to study this subject for future application. As a microbiology major concentrating in biomedicine, I was excited to learn about Acanthamoeba since some species cause parasitic disorders in humans. Although this project’s strains were nonpathogenic, I valued the experience of working with amoeba and hope to utilize these laboratory skills in later research.

During my six-week stay, I enjoyed living in Pushchino. The town is small and family-oriented, featuring nature trails, a sports complex, a souvenir shop, a cultural center, etc. I particularly liked the green zone, a rectangular strip of trees and other plants running down the town's center. I found the birch trees and flowers – including Queen Anne’s Lace, Birdsfoot Trefoil, and red clover – to be very beautiful.

Every weekend, the other students and I traveled outside Pushchino to Moscow or St. Petersburg. We visited the Red Square, the GUM, Arbat street, and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. In St. Petersburg, we walked along Nevsky Prospect, visited the Hermitage museum, took a boat tour, and explored the city. During these trips, I crossed several things off my bucket list, including seeing St. Basil’s cathedral and the Bronze Horseman, attending the Swan Lake ballet at Mikhailovsky Theatre, and visiting the inside of a Russian Orthodox cathedral. I am minoring in Russian Area Studies, so I was thrilled to enrich my education with these amazing experiences.

Additionally, I enjoyed working and traveling with an excellent group of young scientists. I feel fortunate to have participated in this program’s scientific and cultural opportunities while making new friends.

Here is a link https://outsidethepetridish.blog to the blog “Outside the Petri Dish” created by Kristy Waldrep about her experience during the IRES 2018 program in Russia.

Pre-departure workshop at the Center for Environmental Biotechnology of the University of Tennessee. From left to right: Alexandra Aucoin, Molly Moran, Kristy Waldrep, Bretta McCall, John McFarlane, Natalie Vishnivetskaya, and Joshuah Floyd. Lunch during the pre-departure workshop at the Center for Environmental Biotechnology of the University of Tennessee. From left to right: Joshuah Floyd, John McFarlane, Bretta McCall, Molly Moran, Alexandra Aucoin, Kristy Waldrep, and Natalie Vishnivetskaya. In the Knoxville airport before departure of undergraduate students to Russia for the International Experience for Students summer 2018 course. From left to right: Bretta McCall, Grinnell College; John McFarlane, University of Minnesota - Twin Cities; Joshuah Floyd, University of the Tennessee; Dr. Tatiana Vishnivetskaya, Research Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee; Molly Moran, North Carolina State University; Alexandra Aucoin, Nicholls State University; and Kristy Waldrep, Clemson University. Introduction to Russian food, late dinner after arrival to Pushchino. From left to right: Tatiana Vishnivetskaya, Molly Moran, Bretta McCall, Natalie Vishnivetskaya, Kristy Waldrep, John McFarlane, Alexandra Aucoin. Work in the Soil Cryology Lab. Work in the Soil Cryology Lab. Work in the Soil Cryology Lab. Work in the Soil Cryology Lab. Work in the Soil Cryology Lab. We celebrated Kristy Waldrep’s birthday. Final presentation, Alexandra Aucoin. Final presentation, Bretta McCall. Final presentation, John McFarlane. Final presentation, Kristy Waldrep. Final presentation, Molly Moran. Last day in the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems in Soil Science, from left to right: Anna Khodzaeva, Elizaveta Rivkina, Stas Malavin, Tatiana Vishnvetskaya, Alexandra Aucoin, Elena Spirina, Bretta McCall, Kristy Waldrep, Molly Moran, John McFarlane, and Nastya Komolova. World Cup in Moscow, Russia. World Cup in Moscow, Russia. Moscow Kremlin is in background. Fountain “Four Seasons” by the Manege in Moscow, Russia. Inside of the Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg.
Credits for photo: Elena Spirina, Elizaveta Rivkina, and Tatiana Vishnivetskaya

 

2017 Students

Colorado School of Mines, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Golden, CO 80401

The IRES program has been the greatest cultural exchange I’ve experienced. I’m an engineering student with an interest in microbiology, and I was part of the IRES program during the summer of 2017. Initially I was apprehensive because I had never been part of any program that included international travel, but this program is well-tailored to help promote your learning and experience. The scenery in Pushchino was breath-taking beautiful with very lush greenery. This town reminds me of a college campus with numerous buildings holding many labs with different types of research. This experience for me was equally technical as well as cultural. The mentors in the labs were very easy to approach and always willing to answer questions or help. I learned many skills, in the short six-week period that I can use and apply in the future. We were also given tours of a few other labs in the different buildings. It was interesting to see all the different kinds of research, and to meet all the different researchers. The food was always good, I never had a meal I didn’t enjoy. We also had some time to explore some of the historical monuments in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. This program is really an amazing experience and hope that it continues for students in years to come.

Florida State University, Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science, Tallahassee, FL 32306

My first impression of Russia was one of captivation. I was enchanted by the greenery, the Birch (Betula baschkirica), the wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca), and even the stinging nettles (Urtica dioica). During the summer of 2017, I was fortunate enough to attend the International Research Experience program in Pushchino, Russia. Pushchino, while small, is home to a dozen or so various institutes. My work took place in the Institute of Physiochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, also known as the Soil Cryology Laboratory. I was mentored under Elena Spirina, Tatiana Vishnivetskaya, and under the department’s head- Elizaveta Rivkina.

It was there that I was introduced to the Russian microbiological perspective, focusing my microscope on the deep, hidden world within Siberian permafrost. The soil samples I worked with were harvested a few years prior from the Kolyma Lowlands, one of the farthest reaches of Russian wilderness. My thesis question was “How Do Microbial Communities Respond to Thaw”. Thawing permafrost holds large implications for climate change and as an individual focusing its studies on carbon transport I felt the topic was suitable and was thrilled to try my hand at microbiology.

Every morning before beginning our laboratory duties, we all joined for tea and pastries. When I first arrived, I was walked through each process. They seemed unconcerned with what I had and hadn’t already known about microbiology. When we were done, I had gained the ability to culture bacteria, isolate DNA, and analyzing my own data. I also spent many dedicated hours reading research papers on the bacteria of these extreme environments. I became fascinated with their adaptions and dormancy. Though most of my time was spent running through a step by step, DNA extraction process, pipetting from bottles labeled C1 and C2. The solutions were used to attach and filter out anything that wasn’t DNA. These extractions were sent to another laboratory for metagenomic analysis, a process that can distinguish all the organisms within a sample. I was, however, able to analyze my own culturing data to see what had turned up. Through the thawed permafrost emerged bacteria such as Paenibacillus sp., Bacillus sp., and numerous other unique colony-forming units. Attending such an institute really gave me a sense for how one of a kind the research is, with focuses as distant as astrobiology. 

I am sentimental while looking back on my experiences in Russia; the cultural, the scientific, and the personal. Living, eating, working, and traveling with my colleagues made us quite the team. During our spare time, we had the pleasure of traveling to two main cities in Russia- Moscow and St. Petersburg. I found myself enjoying the Russian cuisines as well as the rich cultural history. We toured the Kremlin Armory, the Hermitage, and Peterhof Palace. This experience gave me confidence in moving forward with my decision to become an arctic scientist, and I am pleased to say I will be focusing my master’s degree on carbon transport in the Arctic. I can say with confidence there is no experience in the states that would compare to the uniqueness of this opportunity.

Vasta, Victoria

University of Southern California, Department of Music Theory & Composition, Los Angeles, CA 90089

The IRES project was such an honor and privilege to be a part of this summer (2017). Through the six weeks of the project, I got the opportunity to work in a lab of which held a bulk of the scientific research on permafrost and the microbes within, something of which I find extremely fascinating. Having an avenue of which to communicate and work with scientists who are very active in their field of work was a very humbling experience, something of which I have learned a lot from. The mentors for the program were very flexible and willing to help at every step along to way, in order to ensure that we achieved a nicely finished product. Not only did I get many hours of lab experience, but also I got to experience the amazing Russian culture every day. The arrangements (living, eating, and transportation) made for this program were impeccable. It was a learning experience in itself, navigating a new country and actively participating in the community for 2 months. All in all, I am very fortunate and grateful to have participated in the IRES program for the summer of 2017 and I hope that this amazing program will be made available for future generations to come. Thank you!

In the Knoxville airport before departure to Russia for the International Experience for Students summer 2017 course. From left to right: Dr. Tatiana Vishnivetskaya, Victoria Vasta, Maria Day, and Jennifer Rogers In a conference room of the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems in Soil Science, from left to right: Maria Day, Victoria Vasta, and Jennifer Rogers. Students and mentors, from left to right: Victoria Vasta, Maria Day, Dr. Tatiana Vishnivetskaya, Jennifer Rogers, and Dr. Elena Spirina. Midterm presentation, Victoria Vasta. Final presentation, Victoria Vasta. Midterm presentation, Jennifer Rogers. Final presentation, Jennifer Rogers. Midterm presentation, Maria Day. Final presentation, Maria Day. We celebrated birthdays of two students: Victoria Vasta and Maria Day. Work in the Soil Cryology Lab. Work in the Soil Cryology Lab. Work in the Soil Cryology Lab. Work in the Soil Cryology Lab. Work in the Soil Cryology Lab. Get closer to the nature in Pushchino. The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed in the Red Square in Moscow, Russia. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia. Fountain of horses in the Alexander Gardens, Moscow. Friendship of Nations' fountain in The Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy. Students and mentors, from left to right: Komolova Anastasia, Dr. Xodjaeva Anna, Dr. Tatiana Vishnivetskaya, Dr. Elena Spirina, Dr. Elizaveta Rivkina, Victoria Vasta, Maria Day, Jennifer Rogers, and Dr. Stanislav Malyavin.
Credits for photo: Elena Spirina, Elizaveta Rivkina, and Tatiana Vishnivetskaya

 

2016 Students

University of Tennessee, Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology,  Knoxville, TN 37996

University of Tennessee, Department of Microbiology, Knoxville, TN 37996

Russia is an interesting culture. It was a drastic change from things that are experienced in the United States. That does not mean that it was all bad. Most of the trip was exciting and full of beautiful landscapes and architecture. Our hosts, Elena and Katia, were always very helpful and allowed us to have the freedom to experience some true Russian culture. It was difficult to communicate in Pushchino. Far less people spoke English there compared to the larger cities, but the hotel and markets had everything that we needed on a daily basis. The town was very quaint, but it had beautiful views overlooking the river and plenty of forest to go hiking. The cafeteria at the institute had excellent home-cooked meals every day for lunch. The food and cathedrals were by far my favorite parts of the culture. There was such a wide variety of soups and dishes that it was easy to find something new every day (if you could read the menu). The cathedrals were marvelous. All of the artwork and architecture was so detailed that it was almost unreal. It was sad to take pictures all of the time because you would be afraid of missing something with your own eyes. The actual reason that we went was for work. I extracted DNA from Russian Permafrost. The Institute had all of the equipment, and if needed, we were guided through the work with detailed explanations of why this was being done and what the end result would be. My job was straightforward enough. Eventually, I was able to get the extracted DNA to amplify and the downstream work has just begun. I can’t even begin to thank Elena, Katia, and Tatiana enough. I had an excellent experience and would recommend the program to anyone who wants to experience another culture for a change.

Florida State University, Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science, Tallahassee, FL 32306

The moment I stepped off the plane into the customs line at the Moscow airport, I couldn’t help but think “what did I get myself into?” Never having been out of the county, the dark, serious, almost threatening atmosphere of the Russian customs overwhelmed me. This, however, was the first and last time I felt this way for the rest of my time in Russia. In the coming weeks, I discovered the warmth of people we met and the unique experience that I was fortunate enough to be a part of.

When I applied to the IRES program, I knew nothing about Russia. I was drawn to the research that we would be doing and to the opportunity to travel to a new country full of different cultures. When I got accepted, I realized that I would be going across the world to a country I knew very little about. Whether you are a new traveler like me, or well-travelled, I can say that my experience participating in the IRES program was one of the best decisions of my life.

For me, the IRES program was a good mix of real lab work and free time to explore Russia. During the work week, we spent most days in the lab doing work. Being an environmental science student, studying geochemisty, and having no prior experience in Microbiology, I spent the first week learning background information about the field, discussing my project with my mentor, and learning some simple lab techniques, such as making TSB agar and pouring plates. By the end of the program, I had learned to isolate colonies, run DNA extractions, run PCR, and much more. Besides exploring more about microbiology, I was also able to learn so much about permafrost and the current research going on in that field through lectures, papers, and talking with the other researchers in the Institute. Through this program, I discovered my deep interest of permafrost and hope to continue my research in this area.

On the weekends and in the evenings after lab, we explored Russia. Due to the language barrier, it was hard for us to travel outside of Pushchino without help, but our mentors were gracious enough to take us to Moscow, Serpukhov, and a few other places while we were there. One weekend we traveled to St. Petersburg, one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. If you get a chance, I would highly recommend taking the time to go there. While we didn’t have much time to travel, we were able to explore Pushchino a lot. It is a small town but it is surrounded by stunning rolling hills, fields of wild flowers, and a beautiful river. There are many hidden gems in Pushchino.

No matter your background, I would highly recommend applying to the IRES program. There are so many unbelievable opportunities to learn about a unique culture and country and get real experience with important research. The mentors are incredibly patient and make you feel at home. If you are willing to stay open minded, you will be able to enjoy an amazing country filled with wonderful people, delicious food, and eye opening research. Good luck! Embrace every moment. It is truly an amazing experience.

University of Tennessee, Department of Microbiology, Knoxville, TN 37996

Knoxville airport before departure, from left to right, Dr. Andrey Abramov (Russian mentor), and the IRES 2016 students Alexander Eddie, Elizabeth Grater, Amanda Clack, and Kayla Wilfong. The IRES 2016 students and Russian mentors, from left to right, Dr. Elizaveta Rivkina, Dr. Ekaterina Durdenko, Amanda Clack, Elizabeth Grater, Dr. Elena Spirina, Kayla Wilfong, and Alexander Eddie. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. The IRES 2016 students during summer course in the Soil Cryology Lab at the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. Expending cultural experience during visits to Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Expending cultural experience during visits to Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Expending cultural experience during visits to Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Expending cultural experience during visits to Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Expending cultural experience during visits to Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Expending cultural experience during visits to Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Expending cultural experience during visits to Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Expending cultural experience during visits to Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Expending cultural experience during visits to Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Expending cultural experience during visits to Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Expending cultural experience during visits to Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Orthodox Church of Archangel Michael, Pushchino. Walk through the Green Zone park, Pushchino. View on the Oka River, Pushchino. Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Pushchino. Hotel “Pushchino”, Pushchino Russian food. Russian food.
Credits for photo: Elizabeth Grater, Alexander Eddie, and Sergey Vishnivetskiy

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