UNCW grad to tackle big research in tiny marine organisms

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Alexa Sterling, who is set to graduate from UNCW Saturday, found a passion for micro plankton while at the local university. Photo courtesy UNCW/Jeff Janowski.
Alexa Sterling, who is set to graduate from UNCW Saturday, found a passion for micro plankton while at the local university. Photo courtesy UNCW/Jeff Janowski.

When Alexa Sterling first came to UNC-Wilmington by way of Massachusetts four years ago, she had hopes of becoming a dolphin trainer.

Instead of getting in the water with the large sea mammals, she found her passion to be the tiny universe that lay between a microscope slide.

A lifelong lover of the ocean, Sterling, 22, who graduates during UNCW’s commencement Saturday, has spent her college days engrossed in micro zooplankton. So much so, that she’s headed to the University of Rhode Island this summer to begin a Ph.D. program in the field.

“Yeah, I went from wanting to study big dolphins to studying little micro plankton,” Sterling joked. “But it was amazing how quickly I did become interested in that. We have all these great microscopes in the lab and I never knew about them.”

Hi-tech gadgets aside, Sterling said a major factor in her focus switch was the level of support and camaraderie she found on campus.

In fact, it was a UNCW alum who first encouraged her to come to the local university while she was a high school intern in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

“As I’m graduating, I clearly made the right decision,” Sterling noted.

At UNCW, Sterling said, she found a solid community, not just of her peers but with her professors, as well.

Enrolling as a freshman in Honors College—an intensive program that offers opportunities for research, as well as independent and creative scholarly pursuits—she was able to get a leg up in the lab early on.

“UNCW is so great in that it has open labs and fosters those undergraduate relationships,” she said. “I think it’s so incredible how personal the experience was. You know, some of my past TAs [teacher assistants], I’m still in touch with. It is very much a community…Even as an undergrad, you’re still seen as just as important and just as much a colleague.”

That kind of mentorship, mutual respect and fast-track research education allowed Sterling to shine in her chosen field. As she moved from assisting professors in the lab to conducting her own research, she also picked up a few accolades along the way.

She was awarded a George T. Barthalmus Undergraduate Research Grant in 2012, which allowed her to research and present her findings on ecological interactions between the marine ciliate Favella and the toxic diatom Pseudo-nitzschia at a state undergraduate symposium.

Sterling was also named as a prestigious National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Hollings Scholar, an honor that allowed her to work with NOAA for a summer in Seattle, Washington.

And NOAA is in her sights as she continues to advance toward her career. But she plans to stay close to the academic community she loves.

“The ideal job – I’d love to do applied research with the government, like with NOAA or the EPA, but I’d also like to teach on a university campus,” she said.

Although she admits it will be hard to leave behind the place she has called home for the last four years, Sterling said she is looking forward to further following the passion she first found at UNCW.

“Almost everyone I’ve talked to in the labs about Rhode Island has said, ‘Oh yeah, I applied to that school, too,’ so I feel like it attracts same kind of students. It’s going to be colder there, of course, but there is a beach nearby,” she said. “It’s like my northern UNCW. I am sad to be leaving but I tried to find something as close to UNCW as I could.”

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com.